News & Politics

Capital Commentary: McCain and the Internet: Why It Matters

A series of dispatches from Washington and the campaign trail.

There’s been a lot of conversation in the presidential race so far about the impact of the Internet. From online videos and online fund-raising to social networking sites and blogs, this race is being shaped at every level by what takes place online. Much of this attention, rightly so, has gone to Barack Obama, whose campaign more than any other in history has been funded and powered by online organization. But the subject of the Internet may have just as big an impact on John McCain’s campaign.

There was a time back in 2000 during his maverick, Straight Talk Express-debuting run for the White House when John McCain was the master of online technology. It was, after all, his surprisingly strong online fundraising haul that allowed him to stay competitive after a strong showing in the New Hampshire primary. The Web back then was a different place. In the parlance of the Internet, it was Web 1.0—brochure-like Web sites focused mostly on e-commerce with little to no interactivity. It was a one-way medium.

Over the last eight years, there’s been an explosion of innovation online as the Web moved into what is now known as Web 2.0—highly interactive and engaging Web sites characterized by information sharing and collaboration on projects, as well as sites like Facebook, MySpace, Blogger, YouTube, Flickr, and Digg that allow users to network, create content, and build communities. John McCain seems to have missed this movement—an oversight that may have profound implications both for his campaign and the entire nation if he is to become president.

Last fall in the Republican YouTube debate, Senator McCain cited “information technology” as an area where he would likely need assistance from a vice president. It’s a stunning admission and one we probably wouldn’t tolerate in any other policy issue. Even given the nearly nine months since the debate, McCain still has no technology plan. Whereas Senator McCain devotes prominent real estate on his Web site to issues like “the sanctity of life,” the Second Amendment, and “judicial philosophy,” he has no entry on technology. Barack Obama, meanwhile, prominently features a plan to provide “technology and innovation for new agenda,” an issue he addressed not only in his announcement speech in February 2007 but also in a far-reaching speech at Google headquarters in California late last year.

Plenty of tech material and policy crossed McCain’s desk as chair of the Senate Commerce Committee and, at times, he has proven a leader on tech policy in the past. Today, though, that leadership seems to have gone missing. Former FCC Chair Michael Powell is currently drafting a tech policy for the candidate, and Powell promised one blogger this month that he wouldn’t work for a candidate who didn’t believe in technology. But the issue remains that the candidate himself is computer illiterate.

As McCain told the New York Times earlier this month, “he had not mastered how to use the Internet and relied on his wife and aides like Mark Salter, a senior adviser, and Brooke Buchanan, his press secretary, to get him online to read newspapers (though he prefers reading those the old-fashioned way) and political Web sites and blogs.” “They go on for me,” he told the Times. “I am learning to get online myself, and I will have that down fairly soon, getting on myself. I don’t expect to be a great communicator, I don’t expect to set up my own blog, but I am becoming computer literate to the point where I can get the information that I need.” He also doesn’t use a Blackberry or e-mail, saying “I’ve never felt the particular need to e-mail.”

It’s not so much that John McCain needs to personally blog or Twitter as president. In fact, I don’t want the next president blogging or sending text messages from the Oval Office. The President of the United States has communication mechanisms, systems, processes, and staff available to no other human being on earth whenever he has something to say. There’s no need to login to WordPress if you’re the president of the United States and any network or news agency would be happy to carry your message live to the world.

Instead, McCain’s ignorance of the operations of the Internet today, I believe, says more about the candidate’s intellectual curiosity than it does about his technical prowess. While he should be commended for recognizing where he lacks sufficient knowledge, I’m much more concerned about how, as the Internet changed everything over the last decade, John McCain never sat down and said to himself, “I should really figure this stuff out for myself. This crazy Internet thing is going to be big and I need to understand it.” In an information age, we should demand candidates and elected officials who at least seek out information about the tools and systems changing our world.

The Internet in the last decade has broken down borders in diplomacy and commerce, in education and business, in the military and religion. It’s the primary source for news and information for the Millenials, the largest generation the United States has ever seen. It’s an increasingly important part of business and a source for everything from groceries to dates to DVDs. Here in Washington, Mayor Adrian Fenty’s prolific BlackBerry-ing has helped underscore his image as a new reformer for a new age.

The fact that John McCain hasn’t yet learned how to use the Internet himself puts him not just at odds with most of the rest of the nation but, in fact, with many people in his own age bracket. More than a third of Americans 65 and older use the Internet, according to the May 2008 numbers from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Work by Forrester Research, which uses different age brackets, shows that more than a third of Americans over 55 regularly read blogs and online forums, watch videos, or listen to podcasts. This “Internet thing” isn’t some crazy person’s niche; it will be the driving force behind the next half-century of America’s economic growth. That John McCain isn’t part of that group of “wired seniors” should give us all pause coming into this fall.

The campaign’s online tactics are leaving even its own supporters baffled. David All, a Republican tech strategist, complained to the Washington Post last week that while Barack Obama’s campaign has been building a robust cell phone-based campaign strategy, John McCain’s campaign has never sent All a text message. The campaign’s weekly “McCain Update” e-mail goes out late on Friday evenings, a time when few people are around to read it, and its regular e-mails are so wordy and devoid of actions that the nonpartisan site, which tracks online efforts, has launched a “McCain e-mail watch” feature. Everyone wants McCain’s campaign to “get” technology—we all have a vested interest in candidates and officials today understanding where the future is heading.

On blogs, message boards, and e-mail lists, McCain’s seeming inability to connect with the online generation is quickly becoming a proxy issue about his age—is he so old and so out of touch that he doesn’t understand the reality of today’s world? Couple this tech ignorance with McCain’s admissions about how he’s not strong on economic issues and one is left to wonder whether he has the right stuff to lead in the digital age.

What kind of president would he be in a world where just as much commerce travels over fiber optics as over interstate highways? What kind of president would he be in a world where, for the first time this year, there are now more users of the Internet in China than in the United States? What kind of president will he be in a world where the greatest force for Iranian democracy today is its thriving Persian blog community?

The answer is: We don’t know.

Former Virginia Governor Mark Warner, during his brief run for the presidency, promised that the 2008 race wouldn’t be about left versus right but instead about the future versus the past. There’s no better issue on which McCain could prove he’s a candidate of the future than tech. So far, he’s falling far short.

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