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March 15, 2009


Dressing Down the 2008 Cycle, the Internet, and the Future of the Conservative Movement
By George Scoville

The Right Aisle Review recently interviewed Arlington, VA-based political and policy consultant Jon Henke to gain insider insight into the 2008 election cycle and the future of the conservative movement. Mr. Henke, a self-proclaimed libertarian, is a frequent contributor to The Next Right and Q and O, has worked in radio and served as the New Media Advisor to the Senate Republicans in Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) Communication Center in the United States Senate in 2007. Congressional Quarterly lauded him for launching “one of the first and most successful blogger outreach operations on Capitol Hill, one that has served as a template for other offices.” In addition, Mr. Henke worked for the Fred Thompson and George Allen campaigns, the Arts+Labs coalition, and the Auto Alliance. He launched his own consulting firm, DC Signal, in late 2008.

Jon Henke, owner of DC Signal and tech-in-politics guru

Jon Henke, owner of DC Signal and tech-in-politics guru

RAR: Barack Obama seems to have realized Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy, vowing to redraw the electoral map and subsequently delivering, garnering a near-3:1 electoral landslide. Where was he most successful in terms of campaign strategy? Could he have done anything better?

JH: There are always things that campaigns could have done better, but I think Obama’s campaign was pretty close to perfect. Apart from the disciplined overall strategy and execution, their chief success was in effectively decentralizing the campaign. The Internet played a big part in that decentralization by allowing people to organize themselves. It moved messaging, mobilization, and money from a traditional command-and-control campaign to a distributed campaign in which supporters became stakeholders.

RAR: President Obama ran a campaign ad on a virtual billboard in an online racing game on XBOX Live. As was the case with so many candidates before him, he seemed honed in on the elusive “youth vote.” But exit poll data shows that, while many people voted for the first time ever in the 2008 general election, there was only a marginal increase in turnout in voters aged 18-29. Is it worth a conservative candidate’s time and campaign dollars to explore advertising options like this?

JH: The overall youth vote expanded only a little, but does that mean that Obama’s efforts only expanded his youth vote a little? It seems possible that Obama brought in many new voters, and the overall numbers only increased a bit because many Republican youth voters stayed home [on Election Day]. I haven’t examined the numbers closely enough to judge. However, by not only engaging new voters, but actually getting them involved and connected to like-minded peers, Obama has locked in many of those voters for a generation. Any increase his campaign produced will have cumulative dividends for Democrats over many elections. In the case of Obama’s video game advertisement, he did not advertise in a video game for the audience it reached in the game, but for the earned media [exposure] that the advertisement got him outside of the video game.

RAR: With so many conservatives (you and we notwithstanding) taking lukewarm approaches to technology, particularly as regards social networking and other Web 2.0 platforms, how vital will tech solutions be to reviving the RNC? Or will it be that the RNC needs a total re-branding of its identity, based upon new personalities, new ideas, and a demonstrable commitment to selling ideas as opposed to access?

JH: Technology cannot revive the Republican Party. It is a tool. However, it is a tool that enables us to communicate, organize, and react much more efficiently than ever before, so it will be [critical] to whatever ideas, agenda, and coalition revitalize [the GOP].I believe there are many things the RNC needs to re-think and change, but the RNC is a support mechanism for [the GOP]. It cannot be the organization that changes the Party. It can, and should, evolve and adapt to new realities, though, and that evolution will be important in enabling the change that eventually comes to the Party.

RAR:What does the Libertarian Party stand to gain from leveraging Web 2.0 solutions?

JH: I have the greatest respect for people who wish to express their political preferences through the Libertarian Party. However, I believe the Libertarian Party has a net drain on the influence of libertarians in politics. It is a hopeless investment, with a negative return: a vanity project. So I hope the Internet gives libertarians enough new opportunities to have an impact in politics that they no longer feel the need to expand those resources propping up a dead-end Libertarian Party that mostly exists now to propagate itself.

RAR: What is the likelihood that the Libertarian Party will emerge as a “third way” in the next twenty years? Will there be an end, in your mind, to the bitter partisanship plaguing Washington, or do the two major parties wield such a paralyzing grip on power mechanisms that a third party could never emerge as a legitimate player on the national scene?

JH: I don’t believe we’ll see a de-escalation of partisanship. The Internet enables transparency and empowers dissent. Combine those two things and you make partisan conflict much more likely.

RAR: Transparency as regards E-government: good approach or bad?

JH: Transparency is absolutely good. I’m involved with the Sunlight Foundation’s Open Senate Project, and I think we should always be looking for more opportunities to disinfect government with more transparency. Ultimately, there are only two constituencies that oppose transparency: politicians and bureaucrats. But they’re difficult constituencies to beat.

RAR: What lessons can public servants learn at the state and local levels from the last national election cycle?

JH: I believe there are two lessons politicians and civil servants can take from the Internet: A) It’s not just about sending. It’s also about receiving. By making politicians vulnerable in new ways, the Internet should force them to listen to people much more carefully. The Internet allows them to do that. They can now see and hear problems and dissatisfaction arising online well before it hits the [mainstream media]. B) The Internet should not just give us “more votes.” It should give us more choices. Government needs to use the Internet to expand the choices available to people – to expand the choices people have over their interaction with government. Soft libertarianism – or libertarian paternalism – is one expression of this expansion of choices.

RAR: In your view, who are Obama’s best and worst Cabinet picks? Why?

JH: Honestly, at this stage, I don’t have much [original analysis] to contribute to criticism of Obama’s appointments. I was disappointed that he did not retain Austin Goolsbee, doubly so because he ditched Goolsbee so that he could have a more [gender and race-diverse team] (according to his advisors).

RAR: What is your best advice to college students looking to break into the DC job market?

JH: I wish I had good advice on how to break into the Beltway, but it’s not a clear path. At a minimum, I would suggest people simply get involved with the organizations for which they want to work, and make sure they help people around them. “Carry a positive balance in your favors account,” as Morton Blackwell said. People who do the work and do it well, stand out. That will put you in a better position to move up.

The Right Aisle Review Editorial Board and Faculty Advisory Board thank Jon Henke for his time and his candor. George Scoville is a senior Philosophy and Political Science double-major.

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