Maverick politician Gary Hart is trying to muster some political clout by blogging his way into visibility.
The former Colorado senator and 1988 Democratic front-runner for the presidential nomination is not officially a candidate, but his blog on Garyhartnews.com is testing the waters. It promises regular political musings from the man himself and a place for readers to comment.
Political analysts agree that it’s the first true weblog to be put up by a politician.
“I think those two qualifiers — regular messages from the candidate and feedback from the public — are important,” said Lynn Reed, president of NetPoliticsGroup, a Washington political consulting firm specializing in campaign Internet use. “I know of no other candidate’s website with those characteristics.”
Reed, who developed a website for Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential bid, says Hart’s blog allows him to position himself as an outsider, but an outsider with experience and gravitas.
It also breaks the mold for campaign sites. “Finding out what the public is thinking is not necessarily one of the top five functions of a candidate’s website,” said Reed. Most campaigns use their websites to contact supporters they might not otherwise reach — people who like the candidate without being party regulars. By collecting their e-mail addresses, she says a campaign can activate volunteers quickly and efficiently.
In his opening posts, Hart called the Internet “an amazing tool for people to share ideas, talk about their concerns and their dreams, and debate the many important policy ideas that will affect our country’s future.” He appears to be establishing his position as a progressive with strong security credentials, a combination his supporters think will be formidable in 2004.
Hart has always been a bit of a renegade. As George McGovern’s campaign manager in 1972, he wanted the Democratic Party to be the home of a broad coalition of women, African-Americans and newly enfranchised young people.
He raised the security flag in the summer of 2001, when Hart and another former senator issued a report predicting horrific terrorist events in the United States. The report (PDF) warned that law enforcement agencies had to investigate terrorist sleeper cells that lurked in the United States.
Nobody paid attention, but Hart had foreseen the possibility of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“Gary Hart started the blog, as well as the website itself, as a way to generate discussion and interaction on the future of America,” said Jack Sparks, a spokesman for Hart. Sparks says the website has been hugely successful, averaging 47,000 hits a day throughout March.
If the guy who tends to think ahead of the curve is posting his ideas on the Internet, he may spark some pressure for other politicians to make themselves more accessible to a wired constituency.
Other campaigns have plans to set up interactive weblogs, and none of them credit Hart as their inspiration. Joe Trippi, campaign manager for Howard Dean, expects to have his interactive blog up by mid-May and he insists Dean has been actively reading and posting on other people’s blogs for some time.
Hart uses the blog to post his ideas about security against worldwide terrorism and about economic security at home.
The reader-comments section of his weblog is a curious mix of a politics chat room and a fan-site guestbook. The majority of people are there to support the senator, whom they clearly admire.
“Peace-making requires offensively trained and equipped forces,” Hart said in a speech early this year in San Francisco, where he outlined his approach to a multilateral foreign policy. “Multilateral because no single nation, including the sole superpower, could or should possess … the capability to police the world, and offensive because peace-keeping forces cannot keep the peace where none exists.”
Hart responded to the criticism by blogging back, explaining his “UN Plus” plan and how it could deter conflict around the world. He invited dialogue, saying, “I understand the complexity of the proposal and can think of a number of questions myself, but let me know a better alternative.”
Hart is clearly positioning himself for a run — accepting contributions under Federal Election Commission guidelines, opening a volunteer center and accepting summer internships.
Is a weblog’s sense of immediacy, of intimacy even, enough to change people’s minds about Hart?
In May 1987, Hart was discovered entertaining a woman in his Washington town house one weekend while his wife was in Colorado. The resulting scandal cost Hart the Democratic presidential nomination and has dogged him ever since.
“This may be the biggest problem for Hart in raising funds for his campaign,” said Brigitte Nacos, a professor of political science at Columbia University. “After the Clinton experience, there may be a reluctance on the part of even those who like Hart to donate. Who would want the old scandal revisited?”
It’s possible that Hart’s embrace of technology — and the passage of time — could give him a clean slate with a new generation of voters, inured to political hanky-panky by their memories of former President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. But there’s no clear evidence that has happened yet.
A comment on Hart’s blog posed the question on behalf of the young demographic when a reader asked, “Why should people under 30 trust you?” Neither Hart nor any posters to the Hart blog responded.
Still, Nacos said she thinks the younger generation might be the best audience for Hart’s, or any politician’s, weblog. “My students would not remember (Hart’s scandal) unless they have read some of the books on feeding-frenzy reporting,” she said.
Though none of Hart’s visitors have mentioned his earlier scandal, they’re not giving him a free ride on the issues. Many recognize that he’s got an uphill battle for the White House.
“To make your blog work you’re going to need to mix it up a bit more, Gary,” warns a reader from New York. “Otherwise you’ll waste too much time trying to figure out how not to offend too many people and no one will bother to read you.”
The general consensus among his readers seems to be that Hart has a chance at the presidency in 2004 — as long as he can be himself and not change the message constituents are familiar with that “ideas have power.”
A 23-year-old reader from San Francisco advised Hart to be “as accessible as possible while not sacrificing your principles.”
Another fan summed it up this way: “It’s very hard to compress Gary Hart’s brilliance down to a bumper sticker.”