One of the defining moments of the 2006 congressional elections was when Sen. George Allen of Virginia interrupted his own campaign speech, looked into a handheld camera, and mockingly referred to the young man behind it as “Macaca.”
That young man, of course, was a campaign operative for now-Sen. Jim Webb — fulfilling a role that has come be called a tracker. He was hardly the first to catch a bad moment on video, but because of YouTube, he changed the modern campaign.
Trackers are now ubiquitous — politicians see them at every public campaign stop, and smart campaigns have begun filming their own events so that they can respond quickly to any “macaca” moment and have the chance to put quotes back into context.
In Maine, Sen. Susan Collins is running a tough race for reelection. She’s a Republican in New England – already an endangered species. As such, she’s one of the Democrats’ top targets for 2008. And her opponent, Rep. Tom Allen, already has more than $2 million in the bank.
Sen. Collins has a tracker; the Maine State Democratic Party begun sending someone to record her public events. And Collins’ handlers would like to see that stop. In an open letter sent last week to the Allen campaign, Collins’ chief of staff, Steve Abbott, says, “Tactics such as tracking demean the political process, contribute to voter cynicism, and have no place in the type of substantive issues-oriented campaigns that our voters deserve.” For the next 15 months, Abbott suggested that both campaigns agree to keep the cameras turned off.
This boggles the mind. I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what the Collins camp is actually trying to accomplish or say with this maneuver.
This isn’t a matter of Democratic operatives filming internal GOP strategy sessions. Democratic partisans aren’t bugging Collins’ phone as she does call time with donors. No one is recording anything that isn’t open to the public.
But Abbott honestly seems to believe that it cheapens public discourse to have a record of what a United States Senator says in public to her constituents. And this is just nuts.
A more cynical observer might argue that Abbott is worried about what Sen. Collins might say if she goes off script, despite her reputation for moderate-sounding and glibl commentary. Ironically, Sen. Collins has reportedly been friendly with the videographers sent by the Democrats — greeting one warmly and asking, “Are you my tracker?”. But the fact that her staff so plainly does not get this new kind of politics will be a problem for her, and for any other politician who thinks it’s possible to go off record in public.