If you were anywhere near the political blogosphere last week, you might have noticed a firestorm over the latest campaign moves by local presidential hopeful John Edwards. The candidate's newest staffers, two progressive bloggers named Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, found themselves in hot water over things they'd previously posted to their personal political blogs. The controversy erupted only days after the campaign announced the two women's hires, as part of Edwards' efforts to harness the emerging power of the netroots in his quest for the Democratic nomination.
Anti-religious charges against the bloggers were first led by right-wing typing heads and media figures like syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin, and William Donohue, president of the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. They highlighted the bloggers' incendiary past postings, like a June, 2006 excerpt from Marcotte's blog Pandagon when she described the immaculate conception in vulgar terms and asked what would have happened if Mary used birth control ("A: You’d have to justify your misogyny with another ancient mythology"), and McEwan's reference to Bush supporters as "wingnut Christofascists."
According to what Salon.com described as "sources in and close to the campaign," Team Edwards' initial response to the flap was to fire Marcotte and McEwan. But as news hit the blogosphere, liberal activists vented their rage at Edwards for not standing by his bloggers. Their offending posts, after all, had been written before they were hired by the campaign. Many a political blogger with dreams of one day also making the transition to paid staffer was undoubtedly alarmed. As the on-line fury spread, internal discussions began within the campaign about re-hiring the bloggers. By week's end, a supportive statement from the candidate appeared on Edwards' website, saying that "the tone and the sentiment of some of Amanda Marcotte's and Melissa McEwan's 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...but I also believe in giving everyone a fair shake."
The netroots were quick to claim victory, and most heralded Edwards for doing "the right thing" by refusing to bow to pressure from conservatives for the bloggers' scalps. Many pointed out that the blogger's main accusers, Malkin and Donohue, are themselves no strangers to charges of bigotry and offensive rhetoric. Donohue has claimed that "Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular," has referred to the "gay death style," and during the 2004 campaign said that "if a Catholic votes for Kerry because they support him on abortion rights that is to cooperate in evil." Malkin has called liberal San Francisco "a hate filled city," and her book In Defense of Internment justifies the decision during World War II to force 112,000 Japanese aliens and U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry into internment camps.
Edwards, like the rest of the '08 field, is making it up as he goes along in attempting to re-create the internet magic of Howard Dean's 2004 amazing money harvesting machine. But the Bloggergate mess raised disturbing questions on all sides. What does it say about the current state of the Edwards campaign that these job positions were not properly vetted, since bloggers' words are available on the internet for all to see? Or that the campaign let itself be taken off message for an entire week over a staffing decision? More importantly, how can the left expect to overcome the right's skill at exploiting the media echo chamber if netroots activists insist on turning a candidate's controversial hires into loyalty tests? The rule is generally when you work for candidates, don't do anything to embarrass them. As soon as you become the story, your services are no longer required.
Even members of the religious left stepped up to denounce the bloggers' comments. "We have gone so far to rebuild that coalition [between Democrats and religious Christians] and something like this sets it back," said Brian O’Dwyer, chair of the National Democratic Ethnic Leadership Council. He called Edwards' decision not to fire the bloggers "not only wrong morally — it’s stupid politically." The Edwards campaign probably hasn't seen the last of this controversy, and may continue to be distracted by negative public reaction to these staffers' writings until it finds some way to ease them off the payroll.
Lost in the shuffle was the fact that last Monday, Edwards became the first of the '08 presidential contenders to release a detailed plan for universal health care coverage, a mix of innovative policy solutions similar to those now being implemented by states like Massachusetts and California. Lesson? When the blogosphere roars, the cacophony may drown out even the most disciplined campaign's attempts to discuss things that truly matter.