It was inevitable and unavoidable that the Dean campaign, which came out of nowhere to wow the world with its Internet strategy, would, in the wake of its precipitous fall in the polls (and the emptying of its coffers), face being likened to a bankrupt dot-com.
The comparison isn’t entirely unreasonable. Dean raised a lot of hopes and inspired a lot of idealistic enthusiasm; his failure to carry Iowa or New Hampshire — like so many dot-com companies’ failure to deliver financial results — burst that bubble and led to the cascading problems his presidential bid now faces.
But the at least partial validity of this comparison should not be taken by Dean’s enemies as a cue to dance on the grave of his campaign. The collapse of the dot-com stock bubble was a disaster for many investors, but it never invalidated the fundamental accuracy of the insight that fueled it — that the Internet would spark powerful changes in the way the world does business. Those changes have proceeded apace, even as the dot-com era recedes into memory as a spasmodic folly: Online sales boom. Internet use eats away at network TV viewing. Broadband and wireless extend their reach. New possibilities for self-expression beckon. Many dot-coms flamed out — but the Internet is still reshaping the world.
Similarly, whatever happens now to the Dean campaign, it already achieved a great purpose — and no, I don’t mean that it taught a new generation of political operatives how to raise money online. Anyone could have done that. The real achievement of Dean’s movement was something different and more radical.
At a time when too much of the Democratic party, and too many of its candidates, lay supine before the travesty of President Bush’s policies, Dean used the Internet to punch a hole through the big-media blockade and get the true opposition message out: That Bush and his administration lied to America to start an unnecessary war, a war that has hurt rather then enhanced the nation’s security. While other candidates hedged their bets, Dean spoke the truth, and when the mainstream media tried to marginalize his voice, the Net allowed the breadth and depth of the support for his message to be felt. Today, every Democratic candidate, including frontrunner John Kerry, embraces this position: They are all Deaniacs now.
Internet enthusiasts had long theorized that the Net could help route around the broadcast media’s headlock on both the electoral process and the broader definition of the acceptable boundaries of political discourse; Dean and his supporters made it happen. Whether Dean’s campaign somehow manages a comeback or, more likely, fades in coming weeks is utterly irrelevant to this accomplishment.
Dean supporters, like dot-com true believers, can take solace in this: The horse they backed may lose the race, but thanks to their efforts, it’s a whole different race, on a transformed track.