TCS Daily

The Silicon Implant

By Dominic Basulto - July 6, 2004 12:00 AM

John Kerry's two-day campaign swing through Silicon Valley in late June was meant to raise broader awareness of his supposedly pro-innovation, pro-growth economic policies while, at the same time, padding the campaign coffers just one month before the Democratic National Convention in Boston. The gambit has had mixed results -- and for good reason. Silicon Valley executives were still more than a bit miffed over Kerry's bitter invective against the perils of IT outsourcing earlier in the election campaign. However, Kerry must have calculated that he could little afford to overlook a state rich in electoral votes like California, and has been working overtime to create a half-hearted technology platform. While Democratic politicians like Bill Clinton and Al Gore showed that it was possible to court Silicon Valley and the "tech vote" during previous presidential campaigns, Kerry has had far less success in winning over Silicon Valley.

Instead of enunciating a clear vision involving the Internet, innovation or tech start-ups, Kerry has resorted to co-opting the technology platforms of the Right (tax cuts, global competitiveness and broadband access for all) or the Left (grass roots "digital democracy" of the Howard Dean variety). On issues that really matter to Silicon Valley decision-makers -- such as employee stock options -- Kerry has been frustratingly silent or noncommittal. In fact, a recent Los Angeles Times piece highlighted Kerry's "low profile" on issues near and dear to the high tech lobby. James Glassman, too, recently highlighted how Kerry has flip-flopped on the stock options issue over the past ten years -- further evidence that Kerry does not have the true interests of the tech lobby in mind.

The end result of Kerry's on-again, off-again courtship of Silicon Valley has been a strange amalgam of economic populism papered over with a thin layer of grass roots support. Unfortunately, there has been little of the 'vision thing' needed to excite Silicon Valley. What kind of populism is it that does not favor broad-based employee ownership of companies and stock options for rank-and-file employees? Khakis-clad software programmers and hardware engineers marching with banners reading "Save Our Stock Options" are a different species of political animal than unemployed factory workers marching with hard hats in Massachusetts. Kerry appears to have misjudged the tone and temper of Silicon Valley with his message that emphasizes protectionism rather than stock options and free trade.

In April, Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen, considered one of the original Internet whiz kids, summarized why John Kerry was likely to receive, at best, mixed blessings from Silicon Valley: "If they're going to run on an anti-business message, forget me..." Andreessen's views are all the more damning, considering that Andreessen was, until recently, one of the most ardent supporters of the Democratic Party in all of Silicon Valley. In the 1996 and 2000 presidential campaigns, Andreessen donated $350,000 to Democratic candidates, including a $250,000 check to the Democratic National Committee in 2000. In the same year, Andreessen even held a dinner party in Palo Alto for John Kerry's Senate campaign.

Even with this "anti-business" stigma, though, John Kerry has managed to line up an impressive list of technology executives who are willing to endorse him. In February 2004, over 150 technology executives -- including the COO of Yahoo -- endorsed Kerry on the eve of the Super Tuesday primaries. Yet, Bush has made the more persuasive economic arguments thus far, meaning that his campaign has been able to woo an even more attractive slate of technology backers, including the heads of Cisco, Yahoo, Dell and eBay. When push comes to shove, the Bush campaign's pro-growth, pro-business platform makes for an easier sell.

With both campaigns showing an ability to win over their share of high-tech CEOs, the focus has turned to trading barbs over future technology initiatives. Again, Kerry has chosen the issues -- such as universal broadband access -- that are either least likely to offend (who can argue with ubiquitous Internet access for all Americans?) or that stand the best chance of being spun in a way that is politically expedient. Instead of making an argument on technological or business merits, Kerry has been content to spin these technology issues as "empowerment" issues for voters living in rural areas or inner cities. When highlighting his supposedly pro-technology policies, Kerry has been content to rely on "feel-good stories" -- the rural doctor learning about telemedicine, the Iowa grandmother ordering groceries over the Internet or the young schoolboy from the inner city using the Internet for research projects -- to make his case.

At this point, one can only wonder whether Kerry will ever be able to win over tech industry executives after he referred to them as "Benedict Arnold CEOs" for sending IT jobs overseas. Maybe he can make the rounds at Silicon Valley darling Google and convince CEO Eric Schmidt, who was one of the 150 tech executives who endorsed Kerry in February, to work a little Internet magic for his campaign. After all, just as Al Gore once boasted of having "invented the Internet," an invigorated Kerry would now be able to boast of having "invented the search engine..."

Dominic Basulto is a frequent TCS contributor. He recently wrote about The 99-cent Technology Store.


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