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The war, the Web and the next election
News & Record
Edward Cone
August 13, 2006

Two key elements in Ned Lamont's improbable victory over Joe Lieberman in last week's Connecticut Democratic primary have big implications for upcoming elections across the country: the Web and the war. The medium was important, but the message mattered more.

Defeating an incumbent senator is very, very difficult to do. Defeating one in a party primary is almost impossible. Factor in Lieberman's stature as the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, and it's clear that something important just happened in the Nutmeg State.

One of the clear messages from Connecticut is that Americans are unhappy enough with Mr. Bush's war in Iraq to do something about it. Lieberman has been the wartime White House's pet Democrat, and the widely publicized peck on the cheek he received from the president before the State of the Union address may have been a political kiss of death.

Much was made by Lieberman supporters about a potentially disastrous leftward lurch for the Democrats if they nominated the anti-war Lamont. But in fact the voters were swimming in the mainstream; for months, national opinion polls have shown disapproval ratings of more than 60 percent for Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq. Now those opinions have translated into votes. Yes, Connecticut skews blue, and primary voters may skew toward the edges of their parties, but national opinion polls also show that supporting Bush on the war is more likely to hurt candidates than help them. This cannot be a comfortable moment for GOP candidates around the country as they head toward November.

The critics are right that the Democrats can't afford to look like they aren't serious about national security, but when the measure of seriousness is the current crop of Republicans (and their proxy, Lieberman) the definition of "seriousness" needs to be reassessed. (Democrats in Georgia, meanwhile, showed a measure of seriousness by voting out Cynthia McKinney.)

If the war gave Lamont a message, the Web gave his campaign tools to scale with amazing speed. Attention from bloggers with national audiences helped create buzz around the campaign, giving it an air of credibility when the challenge to Lieberman still seemed an incredible long shot. Organizational muscle came via the Web-based activist group MoveOn.org and a sharp campaign Web site that included links to a vibrant community of supporters beyond the formal campaign organization. Said journalist and blogger Josh Marshall, "Blogs were the vehicle that helped that latent but pervasive disgruntlement among Connecticut Democrats become aware of itself."

And Lamont supporters went well beyond blogging, using the Web to engage people who might not read blogs or follow primary elections. One key strategy was the creation of humorous and pointed videos that were posted at the free YouTube site; Slate's John Dickerson called them "witty, powerful, and in a way ... the fulcrum of the campaign," not least because they "offered a regular dose of entertainment to supporters who were interested but not obsessed." Meanwhile, Lieberman's own low-rent Internet strategy proved by negative example that the Web has arrived as a political force.

Lieberman supporters and traditional media types who fear the Web have been trying to spin the role of the Internet in Lamont's surge to victory. When it looked like he would merely frighten Lieberman, pundits tried to write off the so-called netroots as ineffectual, as if mounting a credible challenge to the powerful incumbent was not in itself meaningful and as if the Web alone was the story. Once it became clear that Lamont was a real threat, the Web warriors were derided as extremists who hail from the "nutroots." Neither version approaches the truth: The Web provides a toolkit, but you need capable people to wield the tools and an appealing message to make the whole thing work.

Lamont, a wealthy businessman from Greenwich, had the message and the appeal, along with the money to run a serious campaign in ways that went well beyond the Web. And Lieberman, a reliable liberal on matters other than Iraq, didn't founder on the Web and the war alone. He seemed aloof, more involved in national affairs than home-state issues, and he didn't take the challenge seriously until it was too late, at which point his hints at an independent candidacy in the event of a primary defeat made him look more interested in Joe Lieberman than his constituents or his party.

Even before Tuesday's shocking result, politicians had internalized the importance of the Web. Democratic presidential hopefuls including John Edwards, Mark Warner and Evan Bayh are building strong online communities, and Hillary Clinton has hired former Kerry strategist Peter Daou as she looks beyond her near-certain re-election in New York this fall to the 2008 campaign.

The Web alone won't win elections. Neither will opposing the war without voicing a credible alternative to our current strategy of, well, whatever our current strategy may be. But as we head into the next round of campaigning, Lamont's victory shows the centrality of both the war and the Web to the way we do politics now.

Edward Cone (www.edcone.com, efcone@mindspring.com) writes a column for the News & Record most Sundays.

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