By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Last week's presidential announcement video from Barack Obama seemed fresh, futuristic and YouTube-friendly -- until Saturday, when Hillary Clinton's "I'm in to win" video, as pretty and polished as a Merchant-Ivory production, made Obama's clip look like a student project. Obama, here comes Mama. And she doesn't play.
As they size each other up, the Democratic front-runners might want to sneak a glance at John Edwards, who has outpaced them both in new-technology savvy. Edwards has been campaigning in cyberspace for months, building a deep, "sticky" Web site with tons of multimedia offerings and a destination-quality blog. Clinton is still working on a blog. Obama is apparently still working on a lot of things.
Who knows whether the presidential campaign Web sites of the three leading Democratic contenders reveal anything meaningful about the candidates? At this early stage, a year before the first primaries and caucuses, who knows what indicators to trust? A Post poll showed Clinton with a substantial lead nationwide, but other polls show a much tighter three-way contest in Iowa and New Hampshire, the states that count -- make that the states that will count, a year from now. New candidates are still piling in (e.g., Bill Richardson on Sunday). The race doesn't even have a complete starting field yet, much less a trend.
But the march of human progress does have a trend. More of you will read this column on the Internet than on newsprint. Those of you who want to tell me how surpassingly brilliant or irredeemably stupid it is will almost certainly do so by sending e-mails rather than putting pen to paper. In just about every realm of human activity I can think of, the Internet matters more now than it did five minutes ago. I can't think of any reason that politics should be exempt.
So what do the Web sites HillaryClinton.com, BarackObama.com and JohnEdwards.com tell us about their namesakes? At first glance, they seem to confirm what we think we already know. Clinton's site evokes a super-competent juggernaut, with every base covered and every hair in place. Obama's is very much a work in progress. And Edwards's Web site suggests the patience, attention to detail and willingness to take risks that you would expect from a trial lawyer who rose from nothing to become a self-made millionaire.
Clinton and Obama are first-name candidates on their sites -- "Hillary" says this, "Barack" says that. Edwards is more formal -- he's "John Edwards" or "Senator Edwards," if you please. Perhaps that's a necessary reminder, since he's not, technically speaking, a senator anymore.
As for overall tone and scope, it's hard to evaluate Obama's campaign cyber-HQ because it's so clearly a provisional, placeholding site with not much but a couple of videos (the announcement; a biography) and a big button you can click to become a contributor. There's a link to his Senate reelection Web site-- he would have to run in 2010 -- and if you find the link and click through, you get a fuller picture of the man.
The Clinton and Edwards sites, as one might expect, are largely about the business of getting elected. Clinton's home page tells you how to "Join Team Hillary" or become a "HillRaiser" of campaign funds. Edwards likewise prominently advises how to join his team, but his home page also focuses on some issues -- he's against global warming, we learn, and opposes an escalation of the war in Iraq.
The real difference is depth and ambition. Both Clinton and Obama (he on his Senate campaign Web site) say they want to have a dialogue with the American people about how best to solve the nation's problems. But Edwards has already started his conversation with the nation. His Web site is an exercise in social networking that includes not only a blog, where surfers can post their thoughts, but also cyber-diaries written by Edwards's family members.
"The soft rain of last night has left the field behind the house dewy with a low fog. Maybe the gossamer meadow is the reason I feel contemplative this morning," begins a recent entry by Elizabeth Edwards. Her diary posts generally draw more comments than her husband's.
Somehow, it's hard to imagine Hillary Clinton waxing about any gossamer meadow.
Edwards's Web site is less YouTube than MySpace. It tries to take advantage of the Internet's great paradox -- that a technology so devoid of human contact can nevertheless create a sense of intimacy and connection.
So, Mama's playing it safe, Obama's not quite ready and Edwards is up to something interesting. In the "Second Life" sense, at least. We'll see about the real world.