Clintons’ Sunset Boulevard

Dick Morris wrote a long piece in this newspaper Wednesday summing up why Hillary Clinton lost. Morris has been extremely hard on Hillary throughout this campaign and obviously has no love for Mark Penn, on whom he pinned the disaster. By and large his criticisms are accurate — it was the wrong strategy at the wrong time and Penn’s ego, or blind spots (if you want to be generous), couldn’t let go of it in time to save the campaign.

That said, Clinton’s was one of the best-executed 1990s campaigns we’ve ever seen. And that, I think, was the real problem. I would argue their most important misunderstanding was that new media took over campaigns when they weren’t looking.

Howard Dean in 2004 and George Allen in 2006 both demonstrated the power of the Internet in losing campaigns. Dean got the fundraising piece right but didn’t understand the social networking nature of the Net. He may also have been just a bit ahead of his time. Sen. Allen (R-Va.) blundered into a demonstration of the power of viral media, totally oblivious to the fact that “watch this video” are three of the most powerful words in modern campaigns. The message of that mistake is that it isn’t just a bunch of 18-year-old kids passing around videos online. Eventually, those video clips get watched by the mainstream media and, in Allen’s case, forced his campaign into a nosedive that could possibly give us our next vice president in the person of Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.).

Barack Obama understood the power of the Web and used it in ways never before imagined — ways that candidates at all levels should learn from. Money is just part of the picture. As I write this, he’s raised roughly $270 million, mostly online in donations of $200 or less, and there seems to be no limit to his fundraising potential. Phil Noble, one of the first political consultants to recognize the power of the Web, predicts Obama could raise a billion dollars this year. Whether Obama hits that mark all alone, it seems certain that we’ll get there in total before this campaign season is over.

But money is only part of how Obama revolutionized online politics. From the start, his website had all the user-friendly comforts of a social networking site. He stays in close touch with his supporters, keeping them posted on campaign developments, urging them to join virtual phone banks, inviting them to rallies and always providing a button they can click to raise money but never pushing them to do so. It is a big, friendly family chat room and the MySpace generation feels comfortable there. So do I, and my children are a lot more involved in social networking than I am. As I’ve written here before, nothing is more powerful in politics than word-of-mouth, and the new media is how that works now. Barack Obama was the first politician to hold up a cell phone at the end of his speeches and ask his audience to text-message their contact information to his campaign. That’s a lot more personal than the sign-up cards that littered the floor of every venue after rallies in past decades.

It is not that the Clinton campaign didn’t understand the Internet was powerful; they were just confused about how to use it. Over a year ago I wrote about the high production values of her announcement video. It was television on the Net, and that’s not what the Net is all about. Her “Sopranos” parody came closer to being a YouTube phenomenon, but it was still TV. Her greatest Internet moment came in New Hampshire when she was close to tears. Now, why didn’t they get how well that worked? Then came the George Allen moments of Bill in South Carolina, Bill red-faced and finger-wagging, Hillary’s Bosnian sniper fire and the RFK analogy. Those video clips seen around the world reminded us what we didn’t like about the Clinton ’90s. It seems the Clintons never understood that the camera is always on. As George Washington University Professor Michael Cornfeld said, “It’s like the Clintons, both of them, had a sort of a ‘Sunset Boulevard’ thing going on. They were silent screen stars who couldn’t make the transition to talkies.”

That’s a message that politicians at every level need to get. The Web is not a youthful plaything. It is becoming a very powerful political tool, and candidates ignore it or misuse it at their peril.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com