Edwards Stumbles on the Net

Posted: Feb 09, 2007 4:05 PM

In the world of politics, bloggers are the new kids on the block. In a relatively short time they have made a significant impact on politics as we know it. The new relationship between bloggers and politicians sometimes makes for an interesting and exciting dynamic, as was the case this week when high drama surrounded the hiring, and almost firing, of two bloggers by John Edwards' presidential campaign. The controversy reveals much about the growing role blogs are playing in political campaigns, and even more about the Edwards campaign in particular.

The drama began when it became known that the Edwards campaign had hired Amanda Marcotte of the blog Pandagon to serve as its "blogmaster." Reaction from the right side of the blogosphere was swift and critical of Edwards for hiring Marcotte, who was well known for her caustic, profanity-laced attacks on those with whom she disagrees. Not only did Marcotte come under fire for being a potty mouth, but also for anti-Christian, specifically anti-Catholic, statements.

Another blogger hired by the Edwards campaign, Melissa McEwan, of the blog Shakespeare's Sister, had some issues as well, including use of the word "Christofascists" to refer to Christian conservatives in her blogging.

Edwards faces the same tightrope challenge all presidential candidates face. He must speak to his base in the primary, but not so much so that he takes positions or creates an image that dooms his chances with the greater electorate in the general election.

When a campaign hires anyone, it runs the risk of a few skeletons falling out of a closet, but in many ways hiring bloggers is less risky. On one hand, the blogosphere is the Wild West and almost anything goes. At the same time, though, everything is "out there" for all the world to see.

Read an archive of blog posts and you will likely learn more about a blogger than you would ever want to know, including not only their deepest thoughts, but possibly even what they had for breakfast. That is why the hiring of Marcotte and McEwan was so surprising, considering everything they have written on their blogs was easily accessible to anyone who bothered to look.

When Salon.com reported on Wednesday that Edwards had fired the two bloggers, a firestorm erupted from the left side of the blogosphere accusing Edwards of bowing to pressure from the right. Some bloggers argued that since Marcotte and McEwan had made the comments on personal blogs, a different standard applied. The profane and incendiary statements were personal, in that they were the opinions of individuals. Unlike writing such thoughts in a personal journal, however, they were written in a forum where anyone in the world could not only see them, but were encouraged to engage in debate on the issues through their comments section.

Even though the writings of Marcotte and McEwan were claimed to be personal, everyone in politics knows that presidential campaigns are all about putting forth a particular image of a candidate. This is not a controversy over free speech in a personal blog, because at issue is not whether or not the blogger is free to say what she wants, but rather it is the story of the image one campaign wants to convey to the country. The Dixie Chicks learned through their highly publicized foray into the world of politics that they were selling more than their music -- they were selling an image. Two bloggers learned this week that whatever talent they have for writing or political commentary, the image put forth through their more incendiary writing is likely to overshadow it.

Outrage over the reported firing of the bloggers did not last long. On Thursday Edwards said he was "personally offended" by their writings criticizing the Catholic church, but that he was not firing them. "I talked personally to the two women who were involved. They gave me their word they, under no circumstances, intended to denigrate any church or anybody's religion and offered their apologies for anything that indicated otherwise. I took them at their word," Edwards said.

It is nice to know he was at least personally offended. The New York Times reported that Marcotte "used vulgar language to describe the church doctrine of the Immaculate Conception." What readers of blogs know, though, and what Edwards now knows, is that Marcotte once wrote: "Q: What if Mary had taken Plan B after the Lord filled her with his hot, white, sticky Holy Spirit? A: You'd have to justify your misogyny with another ancient mythology."

The controversy, including Edwards' decision not to fire the bloggers, provides great insight into his campaign. The decision shows just how far he will go to court the far-left activists in the party. So far, in fact, that he has just, in effect, gone on record saying he believes Marcotte's comments on the Immaculate Conception could possibly be construed as something other than denigrating someone's religion, which begs the question, just exactly what kind of statement does Edwards think it would take to denigrate a religion?

It also reveals a lot about Edwards' judgment in general. Bryan Preston wrote, "if they truly never meant to malign anyone's faith, as Edwards says, Marcotte and McEwan are two of the most incompetent writers on the planet. Or they lied to him and he bought it whole."

Seeing how Edwards handles controversy in his campaign raises concerns about how he might handle them in a presidency. In my opinion, Edwards failed this first big test of the campaign, from the failure to vet the bloggers to the strained statement he released defending his decision to keep them on the payroll. I have no doubt bloggers will continue to make news in the 2008 presidential race. There will be plenty more to learn in the coming months, not just from Edwards' experience, but from all candidates' reaching out to the blogosphere.