The Trouble With Authenticity

The Edwards campaign has blogger trouble. It won’t be the last.

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John Edwards

John Edwards’ campaign had a little fire in the basement this week. Two bloggers hired by the former North Carolina senator, Melissa McEwan and Amanda Marcotte, were labeled anti-Catholic by the Catholic League for writings about the church’s positions on abortion and homosexuality. Conservative bloggers also targeted the pair, reposting previous salty writings from their personal pages. Liberal bloggers largely came to the aid of their colleagues—and waited for Edwards’ response, which they saw as a key test of his commitment to them and their causes. In the end, after a few days of contemplation, the campaign issued a three-a-culpa: a tri-part statement in which Edwards scolded the bloggers for their past writings, and they each apologized for offending anyone. No one was fired.

All the presidential campaigns have been hustling to hire bloggers. Now they’re learning what to do once they’ve got them. Bloggers helped Ned Lamont beat Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary in Connecticut. Still, he didn’t know how to handle it when one of the activists involved in his campaign caricatured Lieberman in blackface. Lamont ended up running away. Edwards, this week, went silent. The senator read some of the offending postings. He asked to talk to the bloggers, whose work he’d not read before and whom he’d never met. His campaign had not formally processed their paperwork, so Edwards and his advisers talked about whether to end the relationship before it began. (A report that the two were fired was wrong, says spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri.) Bloggers heralded the decision to keep them; the Catholic League was outraged, and a top adviser to a rival Democratic campaign took a shot: “Apparently they’re more afraid of the bloggers than they are the Catholics.” *

Edwards has put a lot of money into Web outreach, to build netroots support and raise money, so he had to tread with particular care for fear of undoing that work. But all campaigns are likely to face a version of his troubles this week. The major candidates are trying to do two conflicting things: channel the authenticity of the blogosphere while simultaneously maintaining the rigid image and message control that is crucial to any presidential campaign. It’s a ready-made car wreck because bloggers are tough to domesticate. They want to demonstrate they haven’t sold out once they get onto a politician’s payroll. Their regulars readers will be turned off if they tame themselves, and if they don’t, they’re likely to be coarse and brash.

It seems almost unnecessary to make the case that political bloggers matter to primary campaigns. Almost all major candidates have hired them. Those that haven’t still court and assiduously track them. Last week, John McCain’s campaign held a special conference call with bloggers to convince them that their candidate was the real conservative in the race. When Hillary Clinton announced she was running, her campaign boasted about its online activists, listing blogger rave reviews next to mainstream accolades from pundits at Time and ABC. The campaigns that don’t treat bloggers right get penalized, as Joe Biden and Rudy Giuliani have been. Campaigns are desperately trying to bring supporters online—it makes fund raising easier and allows candidates to deliver their message directly to supporters, bypassing the press. But bringing supporters online means putting people who have never read blogs a click away from them. If you watched Barack Obama’s or Hillary Clinton’s announcements of their presidential candidacies online, you might start getting your campaign news online. At that point, you’ve ventured into the blogosphere’s neighborhood.

It used to be the advertising guys who caused the campaign strains that Edwards went through this week. If the outfit making your ads made ugly ones in the past, you had to answer for it. In 2000, George Bush spent much of August playing defense over an ad that appeared to have a negative subliminal message embedded in it. Though the supporting evidence for that thesis was sketchy, the story stayed in the news because the team that produced it had a history of playing hardball. When a campaign shoves aside an ad maker, though, his competitors don’t support their colleague. They try to take his business. Bloggers, on the other hand, rally. And if you don’t do right by them, they rarely forget.

Correction, Feb. 9, 2007: A previous version of this story did not list the party affiliation of the rival campaign under the belief that it was understood that in a primary contest, rival means a campaign of the same party. However, to clear up confusion, the party identification was added. (Return to the corrected sentence.)