Of course technology is non-partisan, belonging to neither the Democratic Party nor the GOP.
*Watch video of Michael Steele's speech at the RNC's tech summit last February*
Yet when it comes to technology and politics -- an unpredictable, still evolving marriage -- all eyes are on the Republicans. You might have heard the wrap on the GOP: This is, after all, the party of Ted Stevens, the former Alaska senator who infamously described the Internet as a "series of tubes." This is the party of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, who rule in the broadcast, top-down mediums of radio and television. This is the party of Sen. John McCain, who confessed to being computer "illiterate" during the campaign, an admission that could have been shrugged off if only one of his own staffers hadn't felt the need to declare months later that "John McCain is aware of the Internet" -- in front of a tech-pol crowd, no less. (I was in the crowd. I winced.)
The perception is, when it comes to technology, the GOP gives new meaning to being the Grand Old Party.
Which gave the Democrats more fodder for the bumpy launch of the redesigned GOP.com yesterday. The money quote came courtesy of Joe Rospars, the veteran of the Internet-fueled Howard Dean campaign who spearheaded Barack Obama's pioneering online campaign strategy. You can almost see the gleam in Rospars' eyes when he told Talking Points Memo: "You know your web program is in trouble when your site can't even handle the traffic bump from people making fun of your web program."
GOP.com was excrutiatingly slow to load. It crashed on people. Error messages popped up. A few pages were blank. In a bit of online sleuthing, the New York Daily News uncovered passwords and instructions to how to run the site.
But the glitches and aside, the RNC has taken a sure-footed step in the right direction. Engagement is key here. More so than past reiterations of the Republican Party's online hub, the revamped GOP.com is putting the user experience front and center, almost begging for social interaction. Word such as "you" and "your" pepper the homepage. "Republican Faces Need Yours." "Why Are You A Republican?" Taking a cue from the Democratic online playbook, there's a section called "Move Congress" -- MoveOn in Democratic-speak -- and a quote by President Lincoln greets you upon landing on it: "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us ... that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Under the "Learn" tab, there's a section called "Heroes," a highly informative, if a little static looking, page of famous GOPers, from noted suffragist Susan B. Anthony to baseball giant Jackie Robinson. The not-so-subtle message is that the GOP is an inclusive party for women and minorities.
So far, reviews from conservative online strategists have been positive.
"I applaud the RNC for going bold with this new site, offering more dynamic content and opportunities for participation than we've seen before from the committee. This represents a long overdue shift in the culture from closed to open," Mindy Finn, who ran Mitt Romney's online strategy, told HuffPostTech. Finn previously worked in the RNC's online department. "It's unfortunate that the focus upon beta launch has been on the few technical snafus, which likely could have been avoided. Nonetheless, I'd rather see the RNC going bold with their online presence to engage more voters than playing it safe."
This is, indeed, a bold move -- at least for the RNC, which languishes in the shadow of the more tech-savvy and web-oriented Democrats. (Or so the perception goes.) One of the most under-reported stories in Washington is how the GOP rebuilds itself using new technologies. But technology, to be sure, is not a panacea. It's a medium that means little without a message to rally people around. Improving the GOP's online presence is a priority for Michael Steele. Less than a month into his tenure as RNC chairman, Steele held a "tech summit" at the Eisenhower Lounge of the Capitol Hill Club in February. It was an open mic of sorts, with strategists speaking candidly about lesssons learned from the 2008 campaign.
"Campaign Obama recognized that there was a new generation of opportunity out there and they weren't going to sleep at the switch, and they were going to find creative and innovative ways to reach every person they could touch," Steele told the crowd. "And I want to do that."
Steele is trying to make good on that promise.