(NOTE: This item is by Matt Compton, and was originally posted at The Daily Strategist on January 7, 2008).
As predicted by the much-questioned final Des Moines Register poll, Barack Obama won Iowa on the strength of unprecedented support from independent voters and first-time Caucus-goers.
But well before the Caucuses, on blog sites like Talk Left and Firedoglake, questions were being raised about an Obama candidacy based on what sometimes seemed like excessive efforts to reach beyond the Democratic base.
For many bloggers, the problem with Obama was—and is–that he’s been playing into a much-derided “triangulation” meme in appealing to voters without traditional Democratic credentials. As Ezra Klein said last Tuesday, Obama was using “old politics of centrist caution and status quo bias.” Markos Moulitsas walked back from his announced intention to vote for Obama, saying “you have to have your head stuck deep in the sand to deny that Obama is trying to close the deal by running to the Right of his opponents. And call me crazy, but that’s not a trait I generally appreciate in Democrats, no matter how much it might set the punditocracy’s hearts a flutter.” Matt Yglesias tempered his former enthusiasm for the candidate as well, writing “while there’s a lot I like about Barack Obama, if he wins Iowa it won’t have been by running hard on the things I like best about him.”
In truth, Obama hasn’t been afraid to strike back at all his critics with whichever tool best fits the job. Whether criticizing Hillary on health care or questioning John Edwards on the Iraq war, his campaign throws an effective punch. When he announced his intent to seek the presidency, there were real questions about whether Obama had the toughness to win — no longer. But to his online critics, Obama willfully ignored a crucial tenet of blogosphere doctrine — they accuse him of using right-wing talking points to criticize his opponents. And in their eyes, there is no greater sin than validating a GOP frame.
The great irony here is that, ostensibly, the thing that gives so many bloggers pause about Barack Obama is the very thing that they hate about Bill Clinton’s presidency. In fact, the strategy of using “centrist caution” to reach out to swing voters and Independents has been called Clintonism for a long time now. But many of those uncertain about Barack Obama have a lot invested in an alternate strategy of hyper-partisanship, of one-upping the conservatives, of constant confrontation, and when Obama says he does not want to pit Red America against Blue America, you can almost hear them asking, “Why not?” Obama’s real problem in the blogosphere, however, might be about something much bigger than his talking points.
The progressive blogosphere was born in the wake of the Dean campaign four years ago and MoveOn.org before that. In that time, that movement has engaged thousands of people, poured millions of dollars into politics, and given birth to a new slew of progressive stars. The leaders of the movement came into this election fully expecting to have a major impact on the result of the nominating process.
It’s hard to imagine anyone doing more to earn the allegiance of netroots leaders than John Edwards, whose campaign rhetoric has often come right out of the Crashing the Gates playbook. But for all their misgivings, the blogosphere is hardly immune to the appeal of Barack Obama. Kos, Matt Yglesias, and others have all said they would vote for the guy. After watching Obama’s Iowa victory speech, Ezra Klein was almost rapturous: “[Obama] is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair.” But Obama has never courted the online leaders, he never used to their movement to fuel his candidacy, and that as much as anything, makes the vanguard of the blogosphere nervous.
Instead, Barack Obama has built his own, wholly original activist movement. Online, outside the blogs, his campaign has built an infrastructure that reaches hundreds of thousands of people, instantly. More than half a million people have given money to his campaign, and thousands more have volunteered their time. Indeed, this movement appears to be a central component of Obama’s post-partisan vision of America. In his instantly-famous Iowa victory speech, Obama referred to his supports again, and again — “You have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do…You said the time has come to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that’s consumed Washington…I know you didn’t do this for me. You did this – you did this because you believed so deeply in the most American of ideas – that in the face of impossible odds, people who love this country can change it.” For Obama, the key to his political success has been to transform his candidacy into something bigger than himself, and bigger than any party faction, and he has done it without much help from the Washington establishment or the blogger insurgency.