BlackBerry Politics and the Campaign Ecosystem

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David Brooks introduced a wonderful phrase Sunday, in the round table discussion at the end of ABC’s “This Week.” The conversation had turned to John McCain’s embarrassing flub last week, when he falsely said the U.S. had “drawn down” troop levels in Iraq to pre-surge levels. Afterwards, the McCain campaign tried to get around his blown verb tense–the draw down is still in progress–without admitting any error. Brooks reacted this way:

Yeah, this is the stupidity of BlackBerry politics. They get caught in this day-to-day. No one’s going to care what John McCain says about the [troop] levels. What they care is fundamentally who was right about Iraq.

If McCain keeps making small factual errors, Brooks may prove to be wrong about the latter point. Given the candidate’s age, and the baggage of misinformation from the current Republican president, McCain is in danger of giving the impression that he does not have a grasp on the facts, or worse, that he is trying to mislead voters. (Remember the last big flub, when he said Al Qaeda was training in Iran, instead of Shiite extremists.)

But Brooks’ answer also contained a gift, introducing a phrase that I have not been able to get out of my head ever since: “The Stupidity of BlackBerry Politics.” To explain my affection for these words, I must first explain my email inbox. On an average day, I will get about 20 emails before 9 a.m. from campaigns, political parties, and surrogates discussing the presidential race. By day’s end, the emails in my inbox number in the many hundreds, which I scan for interesting tidbits. But I often wonder, If I closely read every email I received, would I be able to sleep, let alone eat, bathe, or do any other part of my job?

My inbox, of course, is not the problem. It is the symptom. Campaigns battle not just for the daily news cycle, but for the hourly news cycle, the blog hit cycle. Both campaigns have staff reading every major reported blog as it goes live, and then sending comments or criticism to reporters. Many Swampland commenters, who view their roles as press critics, fight the same battle, regularly accusing me of reportorial bias for failing to comment on the nano-scandal of the moment. (This is, by the way, the new trend in political press criticism. Reporters are not criticized just for what they write, as in days of old, but for what they do not write.)

And at some point it becomes absurd. Why wouldn’t the McCain campaign just admit that McCain blew some verb tense? Why fight on that issue? How many voters spend all day reading blogs and watching MSNBC anyway? Does it make sense that the Obama email response to John McCain’s Monday speech at AIPAC was 3,800 words long, longer than McCain’s actual speech, which ran about 2,800 words?

The answers are not hard to come by. Voters generally don’t care about what happened in the last hour. They are rational people, with better things to do. But the nano-scandals, if left unspun, grow into narratives, which grow into news stories, which frame the campaign, which affect the election outcome. So there is no ending “the stupidity of BlackBerry politics.” But thanks to Brooks, I now at least have the vocabulary to call a spade a shovel. In the meantime, keep clicking on The Page, which is the best resource for following the BlackBerry spats in real time. I have no intention of blogging about every spat, but I know that the stupidity of BlackBerry politics is here to stay.