TCS Daily

What It Takes

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - August 21, 2003 12:00 AM

Weblogs are now becoming part of the upcoming presidential campaign. Two presidential candidates in particular -- Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich -- have weblogs of their own. Some herald the embrace of blog technology by Dean and Kucinich as a significant advance in the ability of presidential candidates to communicate their ideas with the public.


To be sure, weblogs certainly are a revolutionary form of communication. By posting individual entries on a wide range of topics, by providing links to interesting sources of information and argument, and by using his/her own particular area(s) of expertise to lend a personal and unique touch to each blog entry, a weblogger is able to interact in the realm of ideas and issues with the public in a manner that other media of communication simply cannot match.


But the novel format of blogging means little unless a blog has serious content, with an individual and unique voice that cannot be found elsewhere. To be effective as a political tool, a blog needs to break through the clichés of campaign-speak, and lend a fresh perspective to debates over issues of the day that cannot be found elsewhere.


Consider Kucinich's weblog. Much of it is made up of entries that look like they could be found in either Kucinich's standard stump speech, or the stump speeches of other candidates. It is understandable -- though regrettable -- that stump speeches, public comments, and debate answers are boiled down to 30-second soundbites. The format of most television and print media simply do not allow for more lengthy and substantive commentary on the issues of the day. But the strength of a weblog is that it is supposed to allow the author and the reader to go beyond 30-second soundbites, and engage in a more in-depth discussion of various issues. Kucinich, however, makes little to no use of the advantages that weblogs bring to the public debate, and instead merely treats his weblog as yet another place where he can make a stump speech.


Consider Dean's weblog as well. The overwhelming majority of the entries are authored by campaign staffers who use the blog to announce future campaign events, discuss the state of the Dean campaign in how it is faring in the presidential horserace, and put forth stories about the latest Dean appearances, and campaign happenings. All of this is a clever use of the Web to keep Dean in the news, but it does nothing to provide a fresh perspective on issues that Dean believes to be important. It certainly doesn't help that Dean himself rarely blogs on his own site, and that campaign staffers have to take such a giant role in serving as Dean's voice on the blog. One cannot help but wonder whether this excessive reliance on campaign staffers to write his campaign weblog indicates that Dean is too much a creature of his handlers, without anything serious or unique to say to the people whose votes he seeks.


Even when the candidates are given the opportunity to address specific and substantive issues in a blog format, they somehow come up short. Stanford University Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, who himself has a blog, invited both Dean, and recently Kucinich, to guest-blog on his site. Dean's entries can be found here, here, here, here, and here. While Dean solicits the views of his audience on issues like copyright protection, intellectual property, and other issues, he fails to enlighten others on his own views on those issues -- other than to say that his campaign was "still developing a policy on these items." Dean also admits in one of his entries that he is "new to blogging." It shows; Dean's vague and fuzzy responses to specific questions -- and oftentimes his non-responses -- show that he does not understand the nature and advantages of weblog technology, and does not know how to make use of that technology to specifically and directly define his positions on issues of the day.


Kucinich's entries can be found on Professor Lessig's website as well. But at times, they mystify more than enlighten. In this entry, Kucinich tells us that he is anxious to dispense with the NAFTA and WTO treaties that have been signed on to by the United States (query: why is it that a Democrat who along with the rest of his party denounces the "unilateralism" that is allegedly inherent in the Bush Administration's withdrawal from treaties like the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Kyoto Protocols, and the International Criminal Court, feels that such "unilateralism" is supposedly justified in withdrawing from NAFTA and the WTO? Kucinich never tells us.). When pressed on how Kucinich expects to be able to accomplish these goals when he will likely have to work with, and deal with a Republican Congress, Kucinich makes the following assertion:


My nomination will set the stage for a Democratic Congress. In 1932, when president Franklin Roosevelt was nominated, he ran on a platform of broad economic reform, which excited people to come out in vote in their own enlightened self-interest. As a result, FDR led a Democratic sweep, which resulted in a pickup of 90 House seats and 13 Senate seats. This was accomplished because he represented profound change. He represented jobs, he represented rebuilding America, he represented a hope for popular control over predatory corporations. My nomination will reverse the results of the 1994 election when the Democrats were unable to regain the House and lost the Senate principally because the parties' ties to corporate interests muted the differences between the parties and discouraged the Democratic base. My nomination will excite the Democratic base, will broaden the reach of the party, and will engage third party activists to join us in a mighty effort to reclaim our government.


Of course, Kucinich never tells us how he will suddenly revive and revitalize the New Deal coalition. He just asserts that he will. Unfortunately, as a substantive argument and as an answer to a serious question about cooperation between the Executive and Legislative branches during a Kucinich Administration, this answer just doesn't cut it.


Other blog entries contain similarly flawed arguments. In this one, Kucinich spends a lot of time and words complaining about the current pre-boarding screening procedures currently used at airlines. But he presents no alternatives to these procedures -- other than to trot out the same tired and boring rhetoric about the root causes for international rage against the United States, or, in Kucinich's words, "the basis for the murderous grievances which misguided individuals may have against us." The entire entry reads like a giant non sequitur, in addition to taking seriously the ridiculous and offensive idea implicit in Kucinich's statement, that somehow, the United States has committed acts that invited the terrorist attacks of September 11th, or other terrorist attacks that targeted America, and American interests. It is, once again, a giant heap of non-substantive clichés -- the kind that one can find on just about any radical website or extreme left political journal.


And sometimes, Kucinich's rhetoric smacks so obviously of hypocrisy, that the disconnect between his words and deeds as a politician and as a presidential candidate are next to impossible to miss. In this post, Kucinich discusses his views on intellectual property. In the context of his comments, Kucinich tells us that


The framers knew the importance of the progress of science and useful arts. Their intention was clear. Unfortunately, corporate interests have intruded on our process of government. The overwhelming influence of political money from corporate interests has corrupted the ability of Congress to protect science and the arts.  Today, much of our science and useful arts is coming forth from sources independent of monopolies, thanks to people like you. Yet Congress continues to try to limit certain activities of inventors and artists in order to preserve corporate power and domination. We must, once again, move to reclaim the promise inherent in Article 1, Section 8 [of the United States Constitution].


Bold words. But according to this report, Kucinich's top contributors are lawyers and law firms -- perhaps many of the same firms that take money from "corporate interests" who prompt Congress to "try to limit certain activities of inventors and artists in order to preserve corporate power and domination." Even more amazingly, TV, movie and music companies -- the very corporate interests that Kucinich inveighs against so self-righteously in his blog post -- are Kucinich's third largest sources of campaign contributions. It's profoundly disappointing to see that Kucinich is using blog posts in order to foist the same kind of political double-speak on the voting public that has turned so many people off of the political process. The fact that such double-speak comes in the form of a blog post, instead of a 30-second television or radio ad, does nothing whatsoever to make up for its lack of substance or veracity.


It's in some ways nice to see that Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich have embraced weblogs. But that doesn't remove the challenge of making those weblogs worth reading.


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