The messy relationship between bloggers and politicians

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Bloggers are known for their fast fingers – and their loose tongues. The first turned some into campaign stars. But now, as more politicians try to harness their power, the second is taking its toll.

Just ask Democrat John Edwards. Two bloggers ended their ties to his presidential campaign this week amid protest over their past posts.

The whole point of blogging, as originally conceived, was to create a Wild West of journalism – a land where citizens could make their voices heard without approval from on high, publicize their snap judgments, spark candid dialogue – essentially serve as vigilantes of popular opinion.

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Just as vigilantes are not supposed to be in the pocket of the law, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for bloggers to be employed by politicians.

But you wouldn't know that looking around at the burgeoning 2008 presidential campaigns, the majority of which have already recruited bloggers to be part of their strategy to stand out. K. Daniel Glover, himself a blogger for National Journal's Beltway Blogroll, wrote in The New York Times last December that "pamphleteers of the 21st century" – his humble characterization of his ilk – are making a pretty penny working for a wide variety of government officials and political candidates. Some simply blog, while others are paid consulting fees for "Internet strategy advice" or "opposition research."

Right when it looks as though politicians are getting hip to the ways of their coveted, computer-addicted youth constituency, however, the age-old problem of representation is reemerging.

Mr. Edwards hired two young feminist bloggers in late January. But just weeks later, both of them – Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon and Melissa McEwan of Shakespeare's Sister – felt compelled to resign following a firestorm of controversy over their past comments. Ms. McEwan, for example, once referred to President Bush's supporters as his "wingnut Christofascist base." Ms. Marcotte once created a satirical and quite vulgar Q-and-A in which she wondered what would happen if the Virgin Mary took emergency contraception. Unsurprisingly, both inspired the wrath of conservatives, including Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who called the bloggers "foul-mouthed bigots."

Marcotte and McEwan, who were used to answering only to themselves, were suddenly subject to an authority. The words that they'd written as free agents, respectively representing a sassy party of one, were now affecting the whole party of John. Marcotte wrote: "It was creating a situation where I felt that every time I coughed, I was risking the Edwards campaign."

The Edwards blogger debacle will not be the last time a candidate gets more than he or she bargained for when hiring veteran bloggers. As electoral campaigns attempt to harness the popularity of blogs, they will have to come to terms with the informal rhetoric and cocky, maverick attitude that permeates the culture. They will have to recognize that they are not only hiring the writer, but taking on his or her body of work. In the blogosphere, that body of work can include some pretty damning, off-the-cuff remarks, usually fresh and hilarious, but also potentially offensive to various constituencies. With bloggers, the skeletons are not so much hiding in the closet, as proudly on display.

This is not to say that the marriage of bloggers and candidates is impossible. After all, before Howard Dean's campaign fizzled from a bang to a whimper, the Blog for America (along with Moveon.org) catapulted him into the limelight. Because the blog established itself as an entity in its own right from the start, it has even had a life beyond Dean's candidacy.

But for blogger-candidate partnerships to work, the tangled question of representation must be sorted out.

A blogger such as Marcotte can't erase her past – though it is alleged that she tried, deleting some of the controversial threads that were getting the right-wing blogosphere fired up. In the age of YouTube, MySpace, and LiveJournal, hiring young, expressive upstarts without a paper trail of opinions – some more premeditated than others – is going to be all but impossible. Sure, maybe us "young'uns" (I contribute to Feministing) might want to think twice before pressing "post," but the dominant trend is tipping in the way of speedy self-disclosure and opinion-declaration. A little self-restraint isn't going to change that.

More likely, the nature of electoral politics is going to have to evolve, widening the margin for difference of opinion within a candidate's staff, not reacting to every little controversy as if it were an election- breaking scandal. Edwards, to his credit, stood behind Marcotte and McEwan – at least in terms of their rights to free speech if not their way of exercising those rights. He posted his own response on the official campaign blog: "The tone and the sentiment of some ... posts personally offended me. It's not how I talk to people, and it's not how I expect the people who work for me to talk to people. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but that kind of intolerant language will not be permitted from anyone on my campaign.... But I also believe in giving everyone a fair shake."

His reaction – though not exactly heroic – isn't a bad model for future leaders embroiled in blogger fights, but of course, it still didn't save these women from bowing out. Perhaps it will take a few more quick and caustic causalities before the public becomes accustomed to straight-talking campaign staff. Voters claim they want authenticity and honesty, but bloggers may still be a few sassy posts past the average American's comfort zone.

Courtney E. Martin's book, "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body," will be published this spring.

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