Law, politics, new media and beats, rhymes and life.
If you glance at President Obama's official schedule, or his recent campaign activities, you see a busy president focused on governing and fundraising. But online, Barack Obama has begun to look more like a liberal candidate—or at least like an incumbent with lots of liberal friends.
While the 2012 race is filled with talk of Super PACs and TV ads, the Obama Campaign is buoyed by an online video operation that remains unparalleled in American politics. The campaign generates more videos and, more importantly, more viewers than any other candidate. At 178 million total views, for example, Obama's YouTube channel currently has thirty times that of Governor Romney. And lately it has become a key avenue for Obama to make distinctly liberal appeals.
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem has only been to the White House once this term (for a civil rights concert in 2010), but she just starred in a YouTube video touting Women for Obama.
"He understands that women are absolutely full human beings," Steinem says in an interview recorded by the campaign. The video drew about 55,000 views since its release last week.
Another new video features Elizabeth Warren, a liberal favorite, in "extra footage" from her interviews for the campaign's seventeen-minute video about Obama's handling of the economic crisis, which was directed by Oscar-winner Davis Guggenheim. Meanwhile, since Planned Parenthood was thrust into national politics this year, Obama turned to YouTube so he could offer a targeted "message to Planned Parenthood Supporters" last week. "Women are not an interest group," he intones, stressing that "protecting women's health is a mission that stands above politics, and yet over the past year you've had to stand up to politicians who wanted to deny millions of women the care they rely on."
While Obama does not do as much intimate, retail campaigning as his GOP rivals, the campaign also uses YouTube to publicize his small meetings with supporters. In a grassroots twist on fundraising, Obama and Michelle dine with the winners of the campaign's small-dollar fundraising contests, and the campaign picks a few highlights of the evening for its recap videos. The productions have a warm, backstage feel. In the most recent one, Michele asks Obama if he's going to leave his jacket behind and go casual for the dinner. "I am," he replies, "that's how I roll."
While the campaign's recent videos are mostly positive and focused on Obama's achievements, there are also some tougher attack videos.
Like the other spots, these are attacks that aim primarily at the concerns of base voters, not independents. In advance of the Supreme Court's oral arguments on the Affordable Health Care Act, the campaign released a rapid-fire video called "Republicans are desperate to kill health care reform - help stop them." It's all red meat: ominous clips of Republican candidates attacking health care play against an urgent crescendo in the background, and the screen features the declaration that "Being a woman won't be a pre-existing condition." The final clip shows Romney laying down the law: "If I'm president," he says, "I will repeal Obamacare and I'll kill it dead." The screen flashes an outraged rhetorical question—"'Kill it dead?'"—and tells viewers that "the best way to stop them" is donating to Obama. That's the clearest proof that the ad is for the base; videos targeting undecideds only ask for votes, the second-most important thing in elections.
Below are two recent YouTube videos from the Obama campaign, followed by the latest TV ad, released Monday.
Rahm Emanual did not look happy. “The financial sector—the heart that pumps blood into the economy—was frozen up in cardiac arrest!” Recalling his tenure as President Obama’s first chief of staff, Emanual paints a grim picture. “The auto industry was literally days from collapse,” he intones. Yes, you may have already lived through the 2008 financial crisis, but President Obama’s advisers think that economic amnesia is hurting their case with voters. That is the premise of the sharp, dark film that Obama’s re-election campaign released on Thursday night, a seventeen-minute exploration of the mess that greeted the new president when he came into office. People are tuning in: the video’s debut on Thursday drew more visitors to Obama’s campaign website than any time this year, which Obama officials confirmed to The Nation on Friday.
While the campaign churns out hundreds of political videos, “The Road We’ve Traveled” was designed to be special. The campaign tapped Oscar-winner Davis Guggenheim to direct. Tom Hanks narrates. Bill Clinton and Elizabeth Warren make full-throated cameos. And Obama’s campaign staff aggressively promoted the video’s message to the press and its argument to the base. Around the country, in fact, campaign workers organized hundreds of events to screen the video and conduct trainings. And officials stress that getting people to watch the video—the goal of most viral marketers on YouTube—is not enough.
“We produce these amazing videos, but ultimately we want them to drive some kind of action,” says Teddy Goff, the campaign’s digital director. “So we’re putting a huge amount of energy into using video to advance the business goals of campaign,” he told The Nation in an interview after the video was released.
Still, Obama’s campaign is quite adept at getting people to watch their videos. While Newt Gingrich leads Obama’s potential rivals on YouTube, with about 10 million views total, Obama has racked up 174 million views. They range from the short and goofy—a clip of Obama dancing on Ellen has over 10 million views—to long and serious, like the famous campaign speech on race, which drew about 7 million (and millions more from uploads by others). The new documentary is signficant because, unlike those examples, it proposes a storyline that is not otherwise prevalent in the news or public conversations. Watching the film’s opening tour of the economic crisis is not just a bummer—which is unusual for incumbent politicking — it’s actually scary. At an emotional level, the campaign wants to reset the baseline for the president’s tenure. As Goff explains it, many voters just don’t have complete information on “how bad the economic crisis was” when Obama entered office, or “how much we’ve progressed since then.”
The campaign’s actionable goal is not simply to get supporters to “press send” and share the video itself, but to internalize the message and ultimately do their own sharing, in their own words, of the president’s message. Obama may have more Facebook friends than any other politician (25 million and growing), but his team is betting that the most effective marketing is still mouth to mouth.
If you are looking for the precise moment when the viral campaign against Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony turned to farce, it was probably at 6:21 pm on Friday March 9.
“Have you heard of this guy Joseph Kony?,” asked the rapper-turned-reality-star Vanilla Ice, in a tweet from Dallas. “America needs to send in the hero’s that killed Bin Laden and take this killer out.”
Mr. Ice’s blasé interventionism was retweeted over fifty times, reflecting both the reach of the haves on social media—the anti-Kony video drew a record-breaking 95 million views thanks to tweets from Oprah, Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian—and a newfound name recognition for Mr. Kony, who was unknown to most millennials before March 5. That was the day the “Kony 2012” video was released on YouTube and Vimeo.
The sleek, twenty-nine-minute production from the Invisible Children NGO perfectly demonstrates the urgent, uplifting arc of successful web campaigns. It is part Obama 2008, part Bono—we are all connected, we all share the same core values, we have the power to solve our problems, and we can feel better about them today. The film argues that Joseph Kony is a murderous war criminal who will be stopped if we do our part to “make him famous,” by lobbying, donating and, of course, sharing our advocacy online. There is even a picture imagining the future front-page account of Kony’s capture. And while the filmmakers should not be held responsible for every silly celebrity tweet issued in response, they have courted stars with no demonstrated interest in Uganda. In fact, even after the video’s viral success put it on the front page of Friday’s New York Times, creator Jason Russell was still looking for more A-listers. “We are ready to make this bigger,” he told the Times, “We are waiting for Jay-Z [to trumpet the cause].”
Critics have lined up against the notion that any more sheer promotion—for Mr. Kony, Mr. Russell or his NGO—is constructive at this point.
In a widely distributed rebuttal, Michael Wilkerson, a journalist who worked on a Fulbright fellowship in Uganda, argues that the film packs an emotional wallop by distorting the facts. “Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and hasn’t been for 6 years,” Wilkerson stresses, and while the film suggests an ongoing atrocity, Kony’s former soldiers have dwindled to “at most in the hundreds.” Another writer, Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama, said the effort misrepresents the problem, stoking a sense of ongoing conflict when the “alleged crimes in Northern Uganda are from a bygone era.”
The film’s largest substantive shortcoming, however, is on policy. That’s because of the timing. Kony was already indicted on war crimes in 2005; he already fled Uganda; and the United States has already engaged on the ground, deploying American soldiers in October to provide advisory help to local efforts against the rebels. Short of more military action—like the musings of Vanilla Ice—there are not many tangible acts left for the international community. The Invisible Children NGO doesn’t really deny that. For a film with nearly pitch-perfect urgency and clear narratives, in fact, the clunkiest moment comes in the policy payoff, when we are told, after twenty minutes of intense storytelling, what Must Be Done:
We know what to do. Here it is, ready? In order for Kony to be arrested this year, the Ugandan military has to find him. In order to find him, they need the technology and training to track him in the vast jungle. That’s where the American advisors come in. But in order for the American advisors to be there, the American government has to deploy them. They’ve done that, but if the government doesn’t believe the people care about Kony, the mission will be cancelled. In order for the people to care, they have to know. And they will only know if Kony’s name is everywhere.
The premise here is that what President Obama did when few were paying attention to Uganda, last October, he may undo unless Americans start paying more attention. Given this theory of change, the matching action items are simple: Share, Sign Up, Donate.
Ultimately, as an attempt at policymaking or history, the Invisible Children film comes up short. But as an attempt at inspiration and education, as a jump-off point for learning and debating a faraway problem beyond the twenty-four-hour news cycle, it is a tremendous success. And it would be much harder to get people sharing a video without an action plan—even a weak one. Jonah Peretti, the viral guru who left the Huffington Post to found Buzzfeed, says that even if people care about “human rights atrocities,” videos about them “almost never go viral” because “it’s a bummer to send something like that to all your friends.” The Stop Kony film worked, he explained, because it “starts out not with the gruesome issue, but the fact that we’re all connected to each other,” and pivots to “inspiring things you can do to change the situation.” Hollywood wants happy endings, and the Internet wants ways to make a difference. Even if the solutions are unlikely, it’s a great way to start the conversation.
For more background on the conflict in Uganda: The Nation reported on the 2006 ceasefire in “The Real Crisis in Uganda,” and published this 2003 essay by Monica Arac de Nyeko, a writer from the Kitgum district of northern Uganda.
Rick Santorum emerged from Super Tuesday with ammunition to continue a long fight for the nomination—winning several states decisively, finishing strong in Ohio and burnishing his reputation as a challenger who perseveres even when drastically outspent by Romney. That’s a quality many fallen rivals did not have. And while Romney still has many advantages, the calendar is not one of them: he has a lead of 150 delegates, but about 1,700 remain up in the air between now and the GOP’s August convention.
The big question is whether Santorum can build these regional victories into a national constituency that is excited and focused enough to overturn the party’s unloved-but-expected nominee. Some of the clues to that challenge are online, where data show many voters around the country really are giving Santorum another look.
Santorum’s first turn in the spotlight came with his surprising January victory in the Iowa Caucus. His website traffic surged past Romney that week, a feat for a little-known candidate. Some of the largest groups of visitors were concentrated in early primary states, like Florida, South Carolina and Virginia, according to Google Trends. Santorum’s online footprint faded quickly, but spiked again after he won Colorado and Minnessota on February 7, and remained higher than Romney for most of the month, according to Alexa.com.
While there is no way to directly link aggregate web traffic to voting patterns, search volume does show that interest in Santorum has kept up with the voting schedule. Right now, his top five search locations were all recent primary states—Idaho, Oklahoma, Michigan, Tennessee and Ohio. (Out of all Google searches nationwide, “Super Tuesday” came in sixth on Tuesday, still trailing Rush Limbaugh at number three.)
Unlike Romney, who is well known from a previous presidential bid and able to buy plenty of ads introducing himself to voters, Santorum needs grassroots and online support to reach voters. His YouTube channel has now garnered about 2.1 million video views; the most popular item was posted just two weeks ago, a lighthearted anti-Romney ad called “Rombo.” The channel still trails Romney’s, however, which has 5.3 million cumulative video views, and Gingrich, who garnered 9.3 million views and recently uploaded his twenty-nine-minute energy address on YouTube.
Beyond the primary, however, none of the Republicans candidates are doing as well online as their would-be opponent, Barack Obama. At the comparable time last cycle, in March 2008, his online support was higher by every measure (including record-breaking fundraising and several viral video hits that each drew millions of views). Today, to pick one remarkable contrast, total views on the Obama YouTube channel add up to 173 million.
“The GOP still has a long way to go,” says Alexander Bernard, a Stanford Law graduate who just launched Whistelstop.com, which measures candidates’ political impact online. According to his calculations on the week leading up to Super Tuesday, Obama captured 71 percent of the total “digital footprint in the presidential race,” Bernard told The Nation, while “the four Republican candidates combined” took the other 29 percent. For a long shot like Santorum, that slice of a slice may not be enough.
Two of Santorum’s most popular videos are below.
There is one thing missing in most of the hype over Facebook’s massive IPO. Everyone knows the company is popular, with 845 million users, and successful, with a potential valuation of $100 billion dollars. (That’s five times the size of Google’s 2004 debut.) But what exactly makes Facebook so valuable?
You. Its users. Or more specifically, its users’ stuff.
In fact, in the modern era, Facebook’s IPO will constitute one of the largest voluntary transfers of property from a large group of people to a corporation.
If you read them, though, you learn that all content which users previously owned as intellectual property, like photos and videos, is granted to Facebook under a “a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license.” That means Facebook can do whatever it wants with the material.
This is a truly galling power for a service provider—like an e-mail company asserting copyright over every piece of writing sent through the system.
There is no way to take your intellectual property back from Facebook, either. If users cancel their accounts, Facebook retains the same license for all content that “has been shared with others.” Since everything posted is shared, the company essentially retains everything ever posted on the site.
It’s a pretty one-sided arrangement, which makes it all the more remarkable that Facebook has still convinced most users and observers that it offers a “free” service. No, the company does not technically charge a daily fee. Paywalls and micropayments are for newspapers. Billionaires think bigger. Facebook collects its fees in the far more valuable commodity of personal data.
It is hard to measure how much of Facebook’s value is derived by harvesting its user base. To be fair, most of its revenues today are from advertising, which is downright old fashioned. Some of the ads are personally targeted; others would presumably sell on any popular website. Another 15 percent of the company’s revenue comes from financial payments for gaming and virtual items, which have nothing to do with raiding your photo albums.
But Facebook’s true value is about predicting, not counting. As many stock analysts have noted, today’s annual revenues of $3 billion do not come close to justifying the company’s valuation. The big money, down the road, will have to come from more aggressively monetizing the Facebook experience.
Alexis Madrigal, a technology writer at The Atlantic, projects the company will have to wring $4.39 from each active monthly user to “justify a market capitalization of $100 billion.” How?
He predicts another program to cast Facebook users in ads for products they happen to engage through the site. “I expect to see something like the ill-fated ‘Beacon’ plan resurrected,” Madrigal writes. “It’ll be more subtle this time, but Facebook will get better at showing you products that you and your friends like,” he argues. “You’ll be frictionlessly sharing all your tastes with your friends—and advertisers.”
Sharing is another one of those words whose ordinary meaning melts on Facebook. Like “voluntary.” Or “free.” Or “friend.” Beacon was not about sharing all your tastes, which connotes some choice and parity. The program actually seized users’ purchasing habits to cast them in personalized ads, without notice—let alone those royalties that were signed away upon signing up. It was dialed down after a backlash, but the signal was clear. Facebook users were not a customer base to be served—they were a product to be sold.
The company’s arc—from its heady extraction of users’ property to experimenting with how to hawk it—perfectly demonstrates an old adage about free lunch online. As an anonymous commenter once posted on the MetaFilter website: “If you are not paying for it; you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” In IPO season, the investors may get rich, but the products just get used.
The bulging prison population is a “scandal,” Rupert Murdoch declared this weekend, mostly due to “terrible state laws.” That is not only a surprising opinion from the notoriously conservative mogul, it’s on a topic that he would not usually tackle. The prison-industrial complex rarely comes up in Murdoch’s orchestrated interviews with “the press”—a term that is a stretch anyway, since he saves the best access for employees at his own publications, who have something of a conflict of interest while questioning their bosses’ boss. But Murdoch was not responding to an ordinary interview.
Murdoch was addressing an urge familiar to anyone who has ever wanted to correct something on the Internet, to respond to a question or accusation in the comment section, or to spar with a stranger even though you surely have better things to do. Murdoch was tweeting.
Specifically, he was taking up some of the thousands of questions and charges that have percolated on the micro-message service since he made himself available, sans spokesman, on the network. Even if you don’t like the man or the messenger, the 80-year-old’s scribbles on this six-year-old website are a reminder of how social networking still generates a remarkable amount of new interaction and information.
Murdoch’s prison post, like a good number of his 107 tweets to date, is reactive and even a touch defensive, as he dabbles in direct contact with critics (and fans) whom he would never otherwise hear from. The recent attention on tax rates in the US presidential race brought Twitter questions on Murdoch’s finances, which he gamely addressed last week: “Absolutely pay full income taxes plus NY state plus NY city!” That came after Murdoch had tweeted out against not only the discount tax rate for carried interest but against Wall Street itself. “Romney tax uses long-term legal loophole,” he typed, “‘carried interest’ makes all fund managers rich. Time both parties stopped selling out to Wall S.” One has the feeling he would have spelled out “street” if there were space. Ever the newspaperman, Murdoch is also solicitous towards the spelling police that live to correct digital typos. After his iPod made an erroneous autocorrection on a recent tweet, he thanked his followers for catching the error and added, “I should have checked. Sorry.”
While Twitter has revealed more of Murdoch’s mind, in real time, and given some random people a chance to reach him directly and elicit responses, you may wonder why a man who owns so many media platforms needs to opine on another one. But I don’t think anyone who uses Twitter would wonder. The service’s limits—140 characters for a message, no exceptions—are remarkably liberating. Responding to people in the open, lengthy framework of an e-mail can be daunting, never mind composing a memo or article. Twitter unhooks brevity from the stigma of rudeness. You can touch on something without getting into the weeds. You can acknowledge a question or criticism, genuinely, but avoid spending an afternoon on it. That’s not better than deep thinking and reaction, but it can be better than nothing, which is the alternative for many of the trending topics that percolate across the site.
In today’s Times, David Carr credits Murdoch for diving into the essence of the 2.0 experience. “Mr. Murdoch may not know much about computers, but he has an intuitive understanding of how Twitter is supposed to work,” Carr writes. “By mixing the personal and political, propaganda and plain old rants, he is serving his interests and the interests of his company.” Carr contrasts that approach to the hackneyed shilling of executives like Martha Stewart. She once confessed to Piers Morgan that she uses the site to broadcast her message and sell products, which makes her stream about as fun to read as a haiku infomercial. It is striking that Murdoch, who has been stubborn and wrong about many things in his long career, immediately grasped that there’s no point foisting more one-way communication on a two-way world.
By the time voters go to the polls in South Carolina on Saturday, the GOP will have held a whopping seventeen debates in this primary season. The debates have proven pivotal—catapulting ephemeral candidates like Herman Cain, subjecting unknown “front-runners” like Rick Perry to actual scrutiny and forcing the media to acknowledge Ron Paul, the Republicans’ most popular alternative to a Romney nomination. In a campaign often dominated by Super PACs, vanity candidates and Colbertish self-parody, the debates have actually managed to take the process off-script. So what have they provided instead?
To take stock of all the debates thus far, The Nation tabulated every question, follow-up and comment by debate moderators—a snapshot of the traditional media’s view of the race—as well as all the answers, rebuttals and assorted claims made by the candidates. Here are the most common words from the moderators:
While both parties say the economy is the top issue this year, the debate moderators also spent a lot of time probing distinctions on healthcare. The most common words turn on the Affordable Care Act—“right” and “state” were often used in discussing healthcare and Romney’s mandate system in Massachusetts (as well as some other contexts), and the language of federalism (“national,” “federal”) was usually pinned to healthcare, as well. The most striking part of the moderators’ script is what’s missing: foreign policy—Iraq and Iran did not come up much over the season—while Obama and Bush do not make the list at all.
By contrast, the candidates proactively brought up Obama a lot. They were happy to go along with the press, however, and leave Bush out of the conversation. (That’s consistent with reports that GOP candidates have mostly excised Bush from their campaign speeches.) Here is the cumulative script for the candidates:
While moderators stuck to the term “jobs” in economic questions, the candidates preferred the colloquial “work,” which was the most used word all season—followed by jobs, right, tax and then Obama.
For all the Frank Luntz wizardry associated with the GOP, the candidates did not settle on any evocative terms for attacking the current administrastion. “Obamacare” was rarely used, and in the most glaring political oversight, they didn’t say “Washington” very often. When you’re the challenger running against a party that controls the White House and Senate, in this economy, and Americans are breaking records for their disapproval of Congress (in the ’80s)—well, “Washington” is a powerful indictment.
After South Carolina, there are two more debates scheduled before the Florida primary at the end of January, and eventually, the Romney campaign will probably have to decide whether to do one-on-one debates with Ron Paul, or argue that there have been more than enough primary debates.
With research by Hannah Murphy
You know who won, so here are my takeaways from what might be the beginning of the end:
1. Romney actually won big.
There is a rumor going around that Romney did not win convincingly. “Five Years Campaigning, Less Than 40 percent?,” blared Huffington Post’s quizzical election headline. Here’s a better question: Who breaks 40 percent while winning New Hampshire?
John McCain didn’t—he won with 37 percent last cycle. Neither did Granite State winners Hillary Clinton (39 percent) or John Kerry (38 percent). Romney’s 39 percent stacks up well, and he is competing in a pretty wide field. Thus while Romney’s total is close to those previous winners, his margin of victory is actually significantly larger, as Karl Rove noted on Tuesday night. A decisive Romney victory doesn’t fit the “anti-Romney” narrative, however, so these numbers have been underplayed.
In another sign of strength, Romney led among all voters when they were asked who would be a satisfactory nominee. Regardless of who they backed, 61 percent of New Hampshire voters found him satisfactory—in other words, some 20 percent of the people who voted for other candidates have already accepted the idea of Romney in the general election.
2. There’s this guy in second place named Ron Paul.
While Romney is the first non-incumbent Republican to dominate the first two contests in the modern era, Ron Paul is the only candidate besides Romney to finish strong in both states. He trailed Romney by just three points in Iowa, and came in a very solid second last night. In fact, Paul had more votes in New Hampshire than Santorum, Gingrich and Perry combined. (Imagine the media reaction if Huntsman pulled that off.)
Just as he showed breadth in appealing to evangelicals in Iowa, Paul’s constituency was quite wide in New Hampshire. He led all candidates among voters making under $50,000 (about a quarter of the electorate). He was second to Romney among the McCain wing of the party—voters who had a favorable view of the last GOP nominee (a majority of the electorate).
Yet Paul’s opponents are strong opponents, the thinking goes, so he would not be accepted by the rest of Republicans. But is that true? You’d have to ask them. The exit pollsters did, and overall, regardless of personal preference, more voters said they would be “satisfied” with a Paul nomination than Gingrich or Santorum. Now, that could reflect some ignorance about Paul’s record and ideas, but if the press is going to cover the strength of Paul’s campaign on earth, and not its hypothetical vulnerabilities, then it’s time to report the reality of his wide appeal in this race so far.
A voter tuning into the conservative coverage at Fox News on Tuesday, however, would have no idea that Paul is currently in second place. Many other outlets have not been much better—the press would love to have a two-man race, but not enough to overcome its thick distaste for Paul. The political media has been shorting his campaign, and there are few signs that any evidence will change how the press invests its coverage—a valuable commodity as time runs out. So, like Mike Huckabee or Jesse Jackson before him, Ron Paul is learning that if the press deems you “unserious,” even the voters can’t save you.
3. New Hampshire is not the GOP Base, but the base is not what you think.
Complaints about the unrepresentative nature of Iowa and New Hampshire come along like the Olympics, or like a presidential campaign. They happen every four years, is what I’m trying to say. And the complaints are true but a little misleading.
Last night, for example, Romney didn’t just win an open primary packed with independents. He also did better than every other candidate among people who describe themselves as “very conservative”—about one in five voters.
Remember the Tea Party? Romney did best among Tea Party supporters, doubling the take of their next favorite candidate. (It was Ron Paul, but shhh—this is not a two-man race!)
Romney did best among registered Republicans, too, again more than doubling the support for the next-most-popular candidate. (You get one guess on who that was.) And in the sub-slice of the electorate that most concretely reflects actual participation by The Base—Republicans who voted in previous GOP primaries—Romney dominated with a strong 43 percent. The candidate who came in second among those active, experienced Republican voters? At 20 percent it was, naturally, Ron Paul.
But if you’re a smart political junkie, you can just forget about him—let’s talk about whether Rick Perry can build on his 1 percent showing and buy ads in Florida, and did you see what Newt Gingrich said the other day?…
Photo of Ron Paul at the 2012 Iowa Caucus by Gage Skidmore.
At this weekend’s GOP debates, former Senator Rick Santorum faced renewed questions about his record on gay rights, which he parried by stressing his opposition to anti-gay discrimination and support for “equality of opportunity.” During his tenure in Congress, however, Santorum took actions that enabled and even encouraged discrimination based on sexual orientation.
One of the most blatant examples was Santorum’s opposition to the nomination of James Hormel to be the first openly gay US ambassador. Santorum joined a campaign against Hormel’s nomination that frequently focused on his sexual orientation. Sending a gay American to be the ambassador to a Roman Catholic country, Santorum said in 1994, was “a complete insult to Catholics.” That was a stretch on several levels.
In a new interview with The Nation, Hormel emphasized that “no ambassador nomination takes place without approval of the other country”—a fact that is well known to members of Congress. Luxembourg had already approved the nomination, Hormel recalled, and that history “says something about the integrity of candidate Santorum—he claims to respect gay people, but I don’t find it credible.”
Asked if Santorum opposed his nomination based on his sexual orientation, Hormel saw no other interpretation. “He said it,” Hormel replied, “there’s no other conclusion that can be drawn.”
While that fight suggested Santorum’s views in a single case, at the level of federal policy, he also fought efforts to stop anti-gay discrimination across the country.
In 1996, Santorum voted against a bill to bar workplace discrimination against gays. That legislation, the Employee Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), failed by a vote of 49 to 50. Today, twenty-one states have such a law on the books, so without a federal law, it is still generally legal in the other twenty-nine states to fire someone for being gay.
The Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay equality group, seized on that contrast after Sunday’s debate. Santorum claims to oppose discrimination, said HRC director Joe Solomnese, yet he opposes “laws that would make it illegal to fire LGBT people.” Solomnese saw the debate rhetoric as a reflection of the growing acceptance of homosexuality among the general public, while neither Santorum nor Romney have the record to match the moderate mood. “You can’t say one thing simply because it sounds good,” Solomnese said, “but yet continue to act in a manner that is completely at odds with that rhetoric.”
The ENDA bill never passed, but Hormel did go on to become the first openly gay US ambassador, once President Clinton nominated him with a recess appointment (another issue on today’s campaign trail). Now 79, Hormel is on a book tour for Fit to Serve, which narrates his “secret life” and “public battle to become the first openly gay U.S. ambassador.” Reflecting on the next steps for gay equality in the United States, Hormel cast the opponents of gay rights as wed to a false premise about the experience of being gay.
“I suspect many of these candidates are coming from the perspective that being gay is a choice,” he said. The “LGBT movement” will achieve its next breakthroughs, Hormel predicted, “when people realize being gay is not a choice.”
Here are my takeaways from this year’s Iowa Caucus:
1. Not a Three-Way Finish
The Iowa results seem to suggest a close three-way race—25-25-21. Yet among self-identified Republicans, the totals were actually 28-27-14, showing that Santorum and Romney lead the base, while independents and new voters propelled Paul. That makes Paul more likely to fade, because other states do not have same-day registration like Iowa. In a Republican primary, Republicans matter.
2. Evangelicals Actually Like Ron Paul
In a huge and under-reported development, Iowa’s evangelical voters—who make up the majority of the caucus—backed Paul more than any other candidate besides Santorum. (About 32 percent went for Santorum and 19 percent for Paul.) Perry and Bachmann had repeatedly sought that voting bloc, but Paul’s principled conservatism and pro-life views still broke through. That may scare establishment Republicans—Fox News was the only cable channel to cut off Paul’s caucus speech.
3. But Santorum Is Already Squandering His Surge
Rick Santorum bounded to an incredible finish in Iowa, despite a tiny budget and a media blackout for most of 2011. But there are already signs that his campaign is not ready for prime time—literally. Santorum’s aides failed to get him on prime-time television for a “victory” speech, for example, which would have provided his largest, unfiltered audience to date. (He took the stage at 12:20 am ET.) Team Santorum simply waited while lesser candidates took larger billing, a galling rookie mistake. The Iowa Caucus is not a binding election night—a candidate may simply walk on stage to spin his “victory,” without waiting for opponents to officially concede. Bill Clinton’s famous “Comeback Kid” victory speech, after all, was delivered during a second place finish in New Hampshire
That’s not all. Iowans noticed that Santorum’s budget was so tight he didn’t even have a bus—never mind a plane—and he campaigned out of the passenger seat of a vehicle called the “Chuck Truck.” But apparently he doesn’t have an Internet strategist, either. On Caucus Night, the Santorum Campaign’s website was not updated with any kind of “ask” for fundraising or e-mail registration. That’s a shame, because Santorum was the only candidate name that leapt into Google’s hottest searches on Tuesday night (along with “Sugar Bowl”). By failing to capitalize on that interest with basic web tactics, Santorum left a lot of money on the table. One veteran of Obama’s 2008 web team estimated the cost was in the millions of dollars. For Wednesday, though, the Santorum Campaign had a fundraising e-mail ready declaring “we shocked the world last night in Iowa.”
4. Gingrich May Stay In to Stop Romney
Newt Gingrich easily gave the most gripping speech on caucus night, and by associating himself with Santorum and pledging to “reserve the right to tell the truth” about Romney’s shortcomings, he cast himself as a relevant spoiler in the days to come. Political operatives often say the most dangerous opponents are those who, for whatever ideological or personal reasons, are willing to suppress their ambition in pursuit of a “murder-suicide” strategy. Many Democrats say that’s what really halted Howard Dean in 2003, for example, when Richard Gephardt went all in to stop the Vermont insurgent. And at the end of the night, Gingrich sounded like he would rather be Rick Santorum’s coach than Mitt Romney’s running mate. With two high-profile debates between now and the New Hampshire primary, that could be an influential perch.