Bridging The Beltway Divide

Originally published at NationalJournal.com
By K. Daniel Glover

The directors of RedState last week sent a simple, straightforward message about their support for Arizona Republican John Shadegg as House majority leader: “This matters.”

Unfortunately for RedState’s leaders (and Shadegg), few House Republicans seem to be listening — and they are the only ones with votes in Thursday’s three-way election. Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri is the clear frontrunner in the fight to succeed Tom DeLay of Texas, and John Boehner of Ohio has been running a solid second.

The numbers make perfectly clear that the philosophical rift between grassroots bloggers and the Beltway establishment, evident on the left as well as the right, is as wide as ever. The question now is whether GOP bloggers and the next majority leader can bridge the gap between them after the election.

If Shadegg manages an upset, the task should be relatively easy. He will have won the support of his Republican colleagues, and he entered the contest as the darling of right-leaning bloggers.

RedState endorsed Shadegg even before he was a candidate, and a tally at The Truth Laid Bear shows that he has 100 percent of the few blog endorsements in the contest. Shadegg also won plenty of praise after a Jan. 19 conference call with bloggers.

“He hit all the right notes,” Right Wing News proclaimed in giving Shadegg an overall grade of A. And Ed Morrissey of Captain’s Quarters added that electing Shadegg would “send a clear message” that House Republicans are serious about ethics and reform in the wake of party ties to corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

“Shadegg is the most conservative of the candidates for majority leader and the least connected to the K Street Project and the Washington establishment more generally,” said Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. “This gives him natural appeal with conservative bloggers.”

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The Rise Of Blogs

Originally published at National Journal
By K. Daniel Glover

When President Bush campaigned for re-election in 2004, he vowed to “save Social Security.” Bush touted the notion of voluntary personal retirement accounts in his 2005 State of the Union address, promoted the idea just after the speech, and then, along with top administration officials, barnstormed the nation in a “60 Stops in 60 Days” Social Security tour.

This strategy might have worked brilliantly in another era, when presidents dominated the news from their bully pulpits, and critics — especially those outside officialdom — fought for a few paragraphs or minutes of airtime for rebuttal. But in the Information Age, Bush’s foes had a powerful new tool known as the Web log at their disposal, and they seized it to great effect.

One blog, There Is No Crisis, focused solely on challenging the president’s argument that the Social Security system must be overhauled soon or face dire circumstances. Bob Brigham, a central contributor to the now-defunct site, said that the slogan helped reframe the discussion and embolden congressional Democrats to oppose Bush. Many of them adopted the blog’s theme, he said. “By removing the urgency,” Brigham continued, “it allowed Democrats to win the debate.”

Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo also made opposition to Bush’s plans for Social Security a staple of his blog. He berated the Bush administration at every stage of its “Bamboozlepalooza Tour”; he chastised the “Fainthearted Faction” of congressional Democrats who sided with Bush on Social Security; and he lauded the “Conscience Caucus” of Republicans who dared to disagree with Bush.

“We probably heard from most of [the Democrats] that they didn’t belong in the Fainthearted Faction,” Marshall said. And by the end of April, Marshall had removed more than half of the original 13 from the list because they had come around to his way of thinking.

These days, there is little serious talk in Washington about immediately reforming Social Security, but there is plenty of chatter about blogs — and with good reason. The technology has taken firm root in the capital. Since summer, bloggers have testified before Congress and the Federal Election Commission; have been invited to Capitol Hill for exclusive interviews with lawmakers and to participate in conference calls with administration officials; and have spurred heated debates on everything from Supreme Court nominees to pork-barrel spending.

Earlier this month, the Republican National Committee and the Senate Republican Conference co-hosted a handful of like-minded bloggers in Washington during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Samuel Alito. A stream of senators and top officials, including White House adviser Karl Rove, spoke to the group.

Today, far more blogs are focused on Washington than was the case a year ago, when the Social Security debate was at its height. Think tanks and their wonks have them. So do trade associations, watchdog groups, and other special interests. The Family Research Council started a blog this month and will co-host the first annual Blogs4Life event on Jan. 23, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. So far, 30 blogs are set to participate.

Some blogs target specific topics such as counter-terrorism, immigration, education, health care, and the death penalty. Others, such as Dump Mike, aim to unseat lawmakers (in this case, Rep. Michael Ferguson, R-N.J.).

Only one congressional blog existed before January 2005, but in the year since then, 17 lawmakers, the Republican Study Committee, and Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee have started blogs. Several more members of Congress regularly or occasionally make guest appearances at group blogs such as Marshall’s TPMCafe and The Huffington Post on the left, and RedState on the right.

“Blogs are becoming more respectable,” said Henry Farrell, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a blogger at Crooked Timber. Citing the debate over Social Security as an example, he added, “People are beginning to figure out that blogs do have real impact.”

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Members Of Congress Who Blog

Originally published at National Journal
By K. Daniel Glover

Politicians are rarely on the cutting edge of technology, and that is as true with blogs as it has been with Web sites, e-mail newsletters, and other recent online innovations. Three years after blogs helped force Mississippi Republican Trent Lott out of the Senate majority leader’s office, fewer than 1 percent of his colleagues in Congress have created blogs.

But last year may have been a turning point. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., were among the 17 lawmakers who created blogs in 2005.

“It seems like every time I go online, or get an e-mail, or read a story,” said Nicole Folk, the technology analyst for the Congressional Management Foundation, “there’s another [congressional blog]…. It’s spreading, and it’s definitely becoming more of an option than a couple of years ago.”

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., is easily the most prolific blogger in Congress. He started ConyersBlog in February at his campaign site, a move that freed the online journal from some restrictions governing congressional Web sites. Conyers writes the content himself and regularly “cross-posts” at other blogs, including Daily Kos and The Huffington Post.

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The Courtship Of The Blogosphere

Originally published at NationalJournal.com
By K. Daniel Glover

Fifteen years ago, just a few months into my first full-time job as a reporter, I covered a speech by Iran-Contra figure Robert McFarlane. It was a defining moment in my career.

I say that not because of the speech, which was both predictable and unspectacular, or because of the story I wrote, which was ordinary and uninspiring. I say it because of what happened afterward: One of my journalistic brethren approached the disgraced national security adviser to former President Ronald Reagan and requested an autograph.

I was floored. How could a supposedly objective journalist solicit the autograph of a controversial news subject, especially before finishing his story? How objective could his story possibly be if he were so enthralled as to publicly request a favor from his source?

I felt the same way last week when reading the accounts of conservative bloggers handpicked by the Republican Party to cover the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito from Washington. The communications experts in the party took to new heights the courtship of the blogosphere that they began last fall — and they found a most receptive audience.
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