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The Health Reform Fiasco Is an 'Old' Media Triumph -- and a Red Flag for Democrats

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Last February, I wrote a post about President Obama versus the conventional wisdom machine, arguing that "the assumption the new presidency would transform the political process, usher in an era of unprecedented citizen empowerment and decimate the old conventional wisdom-making machinery, has been undermined by the reality of entrenched power structures, deep-seated rivalries, die-hard habits and Beltway business as usual."

I've been making some version of that argument since Democrats took power. My fundamental case is that political and policy battles are primarily about messaging, about shaping public perceptions; that despite widespread Internet triumphalism in the wake of the 2008 campaign, 'old' media mechanisms are not only relevant, but potent; and that Obama's victory was predominantly the result of a well-conceived and executed traditional campaign strategy (i.e. creating effective positive and negative message frames and adhering to them).

On the first premise, that all political endeavors -- whether campaigns or policy rollouts -- are primarily about messaging, I discussed the online implications in a December '08 essay:

The pyramid of Internet political functions consists of message (communications), money (fundraising) and mobilization. Atop that pyramid sits communications. Message drives money and triggers mobilization. Devoid of a compelling message to spur their use, the most advanced web tools will lie fallow. The impetus to use technology is always external to the technology; the impulse to connect and contribute begins with the inspiration to do so and the inspiration derives from the message.

I expanded on the second premise (that established messaging tactics and mechanisms are still a force to be contended with) in the February post referenced above:

A striking fact about the current political environment is that despite the ground-breaking Democratic victory on November, the new administration is dealing with an oddly familiar political brew: the "liberal media" mantra is rekindled, conservative talk radio (i.e. anti-liberal radio) is resurgent, Rush Limbaugh is more relevant than ever, Ann Coulter is once again doing the network rounds, and if online commentary over the past month is any indication, many progressives still feel disconnected from the levers of power.... The dynamics and tensions of the past decade remain firmly in play: rightwing noise machine (albeit denuded) versus progressive activists, old-school pundits and politicians versus online powerhouses, netroots versus DLC, frustrated outsiders versus back-scratching insiders, partisanship versus bi/post-partisanship, media versus bloggers, and so on. Democrats would do well to note how unpredictably the Conventional Wisdom Machine has operated (or how predictably for those who are less sanguine about the fungibility of a web-fueled grassroots campaign).

On the third premise, that Obama won because he mastered old-school politics, I wrote:

The truth is that the Obama campaign was a triumph of integration more than technological innovation. It was the wildly successful marriage of time-tested political strategies and tactics, executed with acumen and discipline, seamlessly combined with cutting-edge technology and tied together with an empowering grassroots message. With a brilliant candidate at the helm. That, in itself, was innovative.

Six months later, the health reform battle cements my view on all three points. Setting aside strategic errors by the Democrats (and there have been several in this fight), just look at how reform opponents have outgunned the White House using town halls, cable news, newspaper editorials, Freepers, Drudge, talk radio and chain emails. If I close my eyes, I'm transported back to my days on the Kerry campaign and the summer of Swift Boats, Purple Heart Band-Aids and rightwing attack machine antics. It's as though a half decade of technological advances disappeared in the blink of an eye. Forget Facebook and Twitter, it's all about Fox and MSNBC and CNN replaying images of angry protesters at town hall meetings railing against 'government takeovers.' It's about Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh spreading fear and fury. It's about anonymous emails zipping across the country, distorting the facts and sowing confusion. It's about rightwing pundits setting the terms of the debate by foisting radical ideas on the public.

Paradoxically, the attempts by Democrats to counter all this by sending emails to Obama's list and creating campaign-style fact-checking websites seem almost quaint by comparison. When a woman at a town hall spoke about "awakening a sleeping giant," she may as well have been alluding to the old media tools and techniques that have been dismissed by pundits and tech evangelists as anachronistic in the Internet age. Simply put, despite volumes of cyber-ink about the left's online prowess, and despite Democrats controlling the White House and Congress, the right can apparently dominate the national conversation using the same outlets they relied on five and ten years ago.

So to my fellow digerati: it's time to admit that the communications landscape, at least in politics, isn't necessarily tilted in favor of new media. The health reform showdown is powerful evidence that the much-touted online advantage of the left, if not a chimera, is certainly questionable when it comes to major political confrontations.

Perhaps that's one reason for the diminished turnout of mainstream reporters at Netroots Nation -- the creeping sense that the left's online muscle has taken a major hit with the health reform message wars and that the balance of power between old and new media is shifting back toward the former.

That's only going to get more pronounced with the ongoing co-opting of new media by the establishment, the increasing deployment by established media outlets of online tools, the advent of hybrid media outlets like the Politico, the continued preeminence of cable news as the agenda-setter for daily chatter, the use of YouTube to disseminate mainstream media content, and the explosive adoption of Twitter by Beltway reporters.

It's been fashionable in tech/political circles to think of the Internet as an establishment-slayer that destroys business models and shakes up the political landscape and to consider 2008 a watershed for citizen empowerment, but the more sober scenario is one where the establishment stops the bleeding, stabilizes, and reasserts its capacity to shape public perceptions. The health care battle bolsters the latter case.

This portends poorly for Democrats. If you've been fretting about Democratic prospects in 2010 and 2012, then you have every reason to be concerned now that we see how much mileage the right can get out of rickety 'old' media.