Howard Dean’s former Web master breaks down the tubes, with an eye on key ’08 vote

Remember the YouTube video of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) stumbling through an explanation of the Internet?

During the summer of 2006, “Daily Show” watchers and Hill staff alike laughed as the senior senator from Alaska described the information superhighway as a “series of tubes” and stated, “It’s not a big truck.”

While he may have cracked a smile, author Garrett Graff was not laughing.

In his new book, The First Campaign, Graff writes that Stevens’s attempts may have been “hilarious” in many respects, but “the utter sadness of the moment was lost on many.”

“The president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, who is fourth in line for the presidency … possessed absolutely zero knowledge about the most powerful engine of the U.S. economy,” Graff says.

In contrast to Stevens, the 26-year-old author knows his way around the Internet. He was Howard Dean’s first Web master and later founded the media blog FishbowlDC.com. He has now written a book that is not only a primer on modern politics but also a warning about the dangers of Internet illiteracy.

Graff takes the latter as a serious threat, cautioning that the U.S. economy is in danger of falling far behind current and rising global competitors if the nation’s leaders continue to fail to recognize the fundamental link between Web fluency and economic growth.

Making this recognition, according to Graff, falls heavily on the new set of presidential contenders. Dean was the first to tap into the Internet, but the 2008 campaign is the first in which the environment is wholly dominated by ’Net-centric communication — from the recent YouTube debates to Rep. Ron Paul’s (R-Texas) online fundraising blitz.

Graff also acknowledges that the Web is a double-edged sword. It helped Dean harness an extraordinary fundraising base in 2003, but it also was the medium that broadcast former Sen. George Allen’s (R-Va.) “macaca moment,” torpedoing his 2006 Senate reelection campaign.

The book is particularly juicy in its account of how the Dean revolution laid the groundwork for today’s Internet-based campaigns, even though it failed to convert that momentum into votes in the winter of 2003-04. As a case in point, Graff emphasizes that all the 2008 contenders, or at least their advisers, grasp the importance of the Internet. Indeed, both Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) announced their candidacies online.

Graff is also strong in grounding his book in historical context, walking the reader through the evolution of technology to understand how the nation’s campaigns have evolved and where they will go.    

Graff makes no bones about his partisanship when it comes to assessing how the two parties have evolved in the Internet age. He underscores that he believes the Democrats will be the best party to lead the charge into the next chapter in American technological change, because of the party’s tendency to stand for new directions and big ideas. He argues that Republicans, by contrast, have historically rejected scientific arguments — from global warming to evolution to stem cell research — and have focused narrowly on the issue of terrorism. He suggests, however, that a more moderate Republican candidate might be able to address the issue of future competitiveness on a grander scale.

Graff does less well when he tries to tie his argument into a broader discussion of globalization and how the U.S. can compete with the economies of India and China as they continue to boom. The exact connection between that challenge and the 2008 presidential horse race is made in a roundabout way at times.

More broadly, however, Graff does an excellent job of engaging the reader and tying his thoughts together. Most important, he raises vital questions about where the economy is heading and how the U.S. will compete. As he writes, “The choices that the 2008 presidential candidates will make determine whether the country will see — as it should — the first campaign of the twenty-first century, where the challenges and opportunities of globalization and technology are front and center, or whether they run the last campaign all over again.”