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Republicans Seek to Fix Short-Sitedness

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 25, 2008

At 6:50 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 6-- less than 44 hours after the GOP lost the White House and more seats in Congress -- RebuildTheParty.com went live.

Founded by two young party activists, Patrick Ruffini and Mindy Finn, the site proposes to start by rebuilding the often marginalized conservative blogosphere. Its mission statement, a 3,200-word, 10-point manifesto, is aimed at Republicans in general -- and more specifically at whoever takes the helm of the Republican National Committee in the next few weeks. It's signed by a Who's Who of the online conservative grass roots -- the "rightroots" -- most of them in their 20s and 30s, many frustrated by the current state of the Grand Old Party that seems just that: old and out of touch.

"2008 made one thing clear: If allowed to go unchecked, the Democrats' structural advantages, including their use of the Internet, their more than 2-to-1 advantage with young voters, their discovery of a better grassroots model -- will be as big a threat to the future of the GOP as the toxic political environment we have faced the last few years," the site proclaims.

Within a week, Ruffini and Finn say, about 4,000 people signed up on the site and endorsed the plan. Many submitted their own ideas and voted for their favorites on the site's open platform, Ideas.RebuildTheParty.com. Any day now, the site will turn into a virtual think tank, bringing together other online activists from inside and outside the Republican Party infrastructure.

Ruffini, 30, is a veteran online political operative who worked for President Bush before heading the RNC's Internet department and advising Rudy Giuliani. "Maybe I'm being too optimistic here," he says, "but I think this period we're going through right now will be seen as a reawakening of not just the rightroots but also the Republican Party."

"The Republican Party cannot reboot if it's viewed only as a party of old, crusty white guys," adds Finn, who started a Washington-based online consulting firm with Ruffini last summer. At 27, she is also a veteran online operative, having served on President Bush's eCampaign team in 2004 and supervised Mitt Romney's Web strategy. "We need to face 21st-century politics with 21st-century tools."

Different Centuries

The right owns talk radio; the left owns the Internet.

For years, that's been the simplest way to explain the online gap between the two parties. "Of course Republicans are behind online," says Newt Gingrich, arguably the Webbiest of the party's elder statesmen. American Solutions for Winning the Future, a group Gingrich founded, uses the Internet to harness grass-roots energy on issues such as oil drilling. "When one of Obama's senior online advisers is the co-founder of Facebook, when Gore sits on the board of Google and Apple -- well, let's just say the Republicans are not in the same century yet, okay?" (Actually, Gore is a senior adviser to Google, but Gingrich's point stands.)

Examples of the gap abound. State-by-state online activism was an integral part of the Democratic National Committee's 50-state strategy, something the Republican National Committee does not have. A handful of congressional districts could have easily gone Republican, Ruffini says, if more conservative bloggers had helped to raise money and to get boots on the ground. "But as it stands, most bloggers in the right see blogging as a communications medium," Ruffini says. "Bloggers in the right need to look at what the bloggers in the left have been doing and learn to be activists, too."

Some of the bloggers Ruffini is targeting write on such sites as RedState.com and TheNextRight.com, which he co-founded. They understand where he's coming from. Many even signed up on Rebuild the Party, including Erick Erickson, RedState's managing editor. Erickson says conservative bloggers are more concerned with debating policies and ideologies than with how close "a particular race is shaping up in this or that congressional district." In the past three years, however -- especially in the six months leading up to the election -- that mindset has started to change. "There's been a real shift to not just focus on national races but local races, too," Erickson says. "But it takes awhile for the ship to turn."

It's a difference in approach.

The GOP is the talk-radio party -- for the most part, it's centralized, top-down. Even though Rush Limbaugh is "perhaps the best exponent of across-the-board conservatism," as Ruffini wrote, "he has no lists and no way to mobilize his audience directly to donate and volunteer." (But it must be noted that Limbaugh urged his Republican listeners to vote for Sen. Hillary Clinton in Indiana's open primary to prolong the Democratic duel. And Clinton won.)

The Democrats, meanwhile, are the party of the Web: decentralized, chaotic, bottom-up. The bloggers at DailyKos.com, for example, argue about policy and ideology, too. But all that blogging leads to raising money, which leads to organizing, which leads to having a say in the party. When Howard Dean, whose presidential primary campaign was largely funded by online donors, was elected DNC chairman in 2005, there was no doubt that a new Democratic era had arrived.

But clout didn't come overnight for the Democratic "netroots." In a way, its influence was predicated on being independent of the party. Says Jerome Armstrong, who created the liberal blog MyDD in 2001: "The netroots is not the DNC. The netroots challenges the DNC."

A similar dynamic needs to occur between the rightroots and the RNC, bloggers such as Ruffini and Finn say. The rightroots should push their party's leadership and entrenched consulting class the same way the netroots lashed the Democratic leadership years ago.

Ruffini is happy to start the process. Shortly after the election, some prominent conservative activists -- including Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council -- gathered to talk strategy at a weekend home in rural Virginia. The Old Dominion, once solidly Republican, will soon have two Democratic senators and has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in 44 years. Ruffini dismisses the value of the meeting.

"Whatever happened at that country estate will be irrelevant to the future of the movement. I'll bet not a single person under 40 was even at the table," Ruffini wrote on his blog. "The future will be shaped digitally . . . on blogs like this one, RedState, Save the GOP, the American Scene, and the dozens I have a feeling will be created in the wake of Tuesday's wake-up call."

Saved by Obama?

The netroots' ongoing advantage over the rightroots can be summed up in one word: Bush.

Whatever their differences -- and a quick trip to Firedoglake, Open Left and Jack & Jill Politics, some of the more influential liberal blogs, prove there are differences -- the netroots bloggers have rallied around their opposition to President Bush and the war in Iraq. Their annual blogapalooza, first called YearlyKos and now known as Netroots Nation, is basically one big let's-get-together-help-stop-the-war-and-tell-Bush-to-go-back-to-Crawford rally.

The rightroots bloggers, in contrast, haven't united over a common enemy. They've been too busy arguing among themselves.

On the right, you have blogs that focus on taxes and national security, antiabortion blogs and gun-rights blogs, blogs for social conservatives that rarely overlap with blogs for fiscal conservatives. Some of these blogs didn't know what to make of the Paulites, Ron Paul's fervent online followers. Not everyone was happily blogging about McCain during the general election, though his selection of Gov. Sarah Palin as running mate galvanized hubs such as ProLifeBlogs.com. They might all call themselves Republicans, but the GOP comes in many links.

Post-Nov. 4, there's been a lot of internecine soul-searching about the state of the party.

Just visit The Next Right, which was created last May and quickly became a must-read for political junkies and Republican strategists. Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who might run again in 2012, posted his thoughts on election night -- "We will be back in strength," his blog read -- while an estimated 240,000 gathered at Grant Park in Chicago to celebrate Obama's win.

The day after the GOP drubbing, Jon Henke, one of the blog's co-founders, posted a bitter tirade. It was headlined "Republicans deserved to lose."

"You earned the beating you took yesterday. You earned every bit of it. It is your fault." Henke wrote. "Democrats may or may not have deserved to win, but you deserved to lose."

You can almost hear him grinding his teeth as he typed: "Some of you will say 'Republicans need to fight/hold Democrats accountable,' as if it is sufficient to be against Democrats. The pendulum may eventually swing back to you, but you won't know what to do with it."

For many, blogging is more a voyeuristic exercise than an expressive one. They read postings and rarely, if ever, comment. Henke's posting, however, drew 145 comments. A week later, Bob Vander Plaats, the former Iowa gubernatorial candidate who chaired Huckabee's successful operation there, also caused a stir.

"Jesus Christ, whom many Republicans claim to follow, summoned his followers to be either hot or cold toward Him, because a 'lukewarm' commitment makes Him want to vomit. I believe this accurately reflects the mood of voters in the past several elections where Republicans have witnessed consecutive defeats," Vander Plaats wrote. "We have followed the misguided advice of 'experts' to abandon our principles and move to the middle so we can supposedly win. In essence, we have become 'lukewarm' on life, on marriage, on the Second Amendment, on limited government, on balanced budgets."

To which a reader commented: "How do you get the Independents vote with rhetoric like that?"

But there's a likely glue to the ongoing division within the rightroots: Obama. Last week, Ruffini posted an item addressing one of Rebuild the Party's more ambitious goals: recruiting 5 million online activists who will work toward a common purpose. He cites the proposed auto bailout as "the first outrage of the Obama era."

Aided and prompted by the rightroots, "a functioning RNC," he wrote, "would be able to take a hard line against the bailout-of-choice for the auto industry. Or against insert-Obama-outrage-here. It doesn't really matter. We'll have plenty of issues once these guys actually get in."

It's All About a Movement

A week after the election, and five days after Rebuild the Party was introduced, RNC Chairman Mike Duncan unveiled RepublicanForAReason.com, which he describes as "a grassroots site that Republicans can use to tell us what they think of the party." He says the party has lost the trust of its members and the site "is a big part of understanding and communicating with them." He agrees with Finn that the GOP is viewed "as a party of old white guys."

"And I'm saying that as a 57-year-old white guy." He quickly adds: "But I use technology. I've got three BlackBerrys. I've got a Kindle." He promises that the RNC's Internet division -- headed by Cyrus Krohn, formerly of Microsoft and Yahoo -- will get more resources, calling it "a big priority for the RNC." There's speculation that Duncan wants to run for a second term, though he says he hasn't made up his mind.

Chip Saltsman, who served as chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party and managed Huckabee's presidential campaign, is also weighing a run at the RNC chairmanship. At 40, he's the youngest in the group of names that are being tossed around, which include former senator and actor Fred Thompson, 66, and Katon Dawson, 52, current head of the South Carolina GOP. Saltsman, too, agrees with Finn. "We can't afford to be looked at as the party of the rich old white guy," he says. Like Duncan, he wants to place more emphasis on the party's Web strategy. "There's still a big hole in our game plan, and that's the Internet," he says.

But the Internet is not a panacea.

"This is not just about making the Web central to your strategy. This is about ideas. This is about using the Internet to promote your ideas and build a movement," Finn says. In a span of 30 minutes, she says the word "movement" no fewer than 14 times.

"In this Internet era, it's not enough to run a campaign, you need to lead a movement -- that's what Obama did," she continues. "If you look at their site, their online videos, their online ads, everything they did, it wasn't about 'me, myself and I.' It was about 'we' and 'us.' "

From the moment Obama launched his site, Ruffini took screen shots of what he thought were interesting pages and archived them on his Flickr account. "The breadth of Obama's site was extraordinary," Ruffini says. "The Web site highlighted maybe 10 unique programs in every battleground state -- and this differed from state to state." Later, he points to Obama's record online haul during his 21-month campaign: a half-billion dollars raised from 3 million online donors, 13 million e-mail addresses collected. In a blog posting, he argues that Obama's popular-vote win is partly due to his appeal to young voters, whom he won 66 percent to 32 percent over McCain, exit polls showed.

"It was only eight years ago that Bush and Gore were tied with the youth vote," Ruffini says. "Now young voters are the backbone of Obama's grassroots support."

"And we need to win them back," Finn says. "We must. But for a lot of these young voters who grew up during the Bush era, what they've heard and what they've perceived is that the Republican Party is a party of being against things, rather than a party of solutions and inclusion, rather than a party of individual freedom. We need to correct that. We need to rebuild the party and we'll do that online."

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