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Message Machine

How the Web is not revolutionizing campaign politics

Hillary Clinton personally e-mailed me and several hundred thousand of her closest friends on Tuesday to let us know that her much-anticipated HillCam was up and running, granting us quickie glimpses of Hill and Bill as they shake hands, kiss babies, and snack their way across the great state of Iowa. Make no mistake: These aren't your run-of-the-mill, glossy, overproduced TV spots loosely rejiggered for the Web. Rather, the campaign assures us, they are "groundbreaking," "unvarnished," "exclusive behind-the-scenes" snapshots of the Clintons' most "spontaneous moments" on the trail together.

Which raises the question: How stupid does Team Hillary think we are?

Come on, guys. I know you want to warm up your gal's image. And I'll admit that she looks cute as a button in that sunshine-yellow top, sucking down soda at the Grinnell Dairy Queen. But don't ask me to believe that these adorable mini movies are any less contrived than an old-fashioned TV ad. Just because you have jittery camera work and zero production values doesn't make your offering "spontaneous." Cheaper, yes. But not spontaneous. It's not like the campaign is streaming real-time video of every burp, snort, and tickle fight Hill and Bill share on the trail. (Nor should they, I rush to add.) Like any run-of-the-mill ad, these videos are edited to convey a particular message. (In this case: Hillary is a warm and fuzzy people person.) Compounding the problem, you all couldn't stick to just the baby-kissing, grandpa-hugging snapshots-from-the-trail footage. Noooooo. You had to have your perky-voiced videographer toss the candidate an occasional softball ("How was talking to the firefighters?") in order to give her the chance for an occasion smatter of electoral pablum. ("You know I am so admiring of firefighters and what they do every single day...") I'm sorry, but these magic moments are only slightly less meticulously sculpted than Mitt Romney's hair.

Not that Team Hillary is the only, or even the most insulting, offender in this race's onslaught of phony Web authenticity. Big-name candidates from both parties are tripping all over themselves to convince voters that--through such interactive wonders as blogging, video Web chats, and text messaging--they are leading the crusade to jettison the phony, empty, misleading, overpackaged, sound-bite-driven politics of the past. Instead, as Republican not-quite-yet-official candidate Fred Thompson recently enthused on "Politics is now one big 24-hour news cycle, but we seem to spend less time than ever on real substance...What if someone harnessed the Internet and other technologies and insisted on talking about real issues in more depth than consultants would advise? What if they took risks with their race in hopes that the risks to our children could be reduced through building a mandate for good policy?"

"What if" indeed. Alas, thus far the most celebrated example of Thompson's tech assault on politics as usual has been his clever but utterly substanceless smackdown of Michael Moore, in which the candidate parried the gasbag filmmaker's challenge of a debate on health care with a cheeky warning that Moore's "good buddy Castro" might one day decide to toss Mikey in a mental institution. Of the spot, The Weekly Standard's Fred-smitten Stephen Hayes gushed:

When Thompson and his adviser talk about running a "different kind of campaign," this is what they mean. They believe they can use the Internet--in videos, audio files, and written commentary--to communicate directly with voters. His message will be unfiltered and therefore somewhat protected from mischaracterization by a left-leaning press corps in Washington. Campaign events will be filed and posted so that interest parties--in this case, very interested parties--can see for themselves whether a Thompson performance was actually "lackluster" or lackluster only in the eyes of reporters. It is all part of Thompson's plan.

Wow. That's quite a plan--though how it differs from every other campaign's plan isn't entirely clear, aside from the fact that Thompson is a professional actor and so more skilled at churning out clever little set pieces than the others. And while pricking the overblown ego (and questioning the sanity) of one of the left's biggest demagogues is certainly a great way to win the adoration of the base, it's hard to see how this is in any way a step toward putting substance over style--or moving away from the name-calling politics of yore.

Indeed, thus far, what has struck me most about the Brave New World of virtual campaigning is how much it resembles the Tiresome Old World of actual campaigning. Now, instead of relying on scripted debate answers, impersonal rallies, and slick television ads to get to know our candidates, we can turn to scripted blog posts, impersonal e-mails, and slick webcasts. Prepackaged set pieces like Thompson's Moore response--or Hillary's campaign announcement or "Sopranos" spoof--hardly serve to break down barriers between candidate and voter and increase our knowledge of The Real Candidate. Rather, Web campaigning allows candidates even greater control over their message and their image: No uppity reporters around to ask uncomfortable questions. No unpleasant encounters with hecklers or voters of a different political persuasion. No on-the-fly verbal stumbles. No awkward pauses in the face of an unforeseen comment. If anything, the Web helps cut down on all that untidy, unpredictable one-on-one contact with the unwashed masses.

So while I'm perfectly willing to watch a slightly sweaty Hillary ramble on about the joys of parading in Iowa, please don't ask me to regard her--or any other candidate's- performance as part of a newer, truer form of campaigning. Technological savvy isn't the same as authenticity. It simply offers new ways to fake it.