Why the Right Should be Wary of Twitter

I’ll give you three no guesses to figure out what David All’s advice to College Republicans is:

David All, of the eponymous conservative media consulting group, tried to persuade a less-than-capacity crowd that Twitter was the future. “That’s the thing that we need to embrace and evangelize every single day,” he said. “We have a massive opportunity to grow the pie of conservatism because of the quickness of Twitter and because everyone is jumping on board.”

This is the exact same advice he gave to John McCain, and indeed, to all politicians. Not to pick on David All, but I doubt that Twitter’s going to do much to help Republicans — college or otherwise — get their act together in ways that matter. And in fact, it might actually hurt.

Here’s why Twitter is a dangerous medium for Republicans in their current state: Right now, the GOP has a dearth of both leadership and ideas. It spent the last decade (at least) refining its ability to deliver talking points and focus-grouped soundbites, learning how to win elections (for a time), but basically ignoring what are arguably the two most important features of politics: policy and governing — leaving us with a GOP effective at neither management nor innovation. The more-or-less centralized message machine became the only tool in the party’s playbook, but eventually it became clear that that machine, refined as it was, had nothing to talk about.

These days, with the party floundering, it needs to focus a lot less on selling ideas and a lot more on the ideas themselves. The party has developed a sales force — and given it nothing to sell.

And Twitter, for all its speed and usefulness — I’m on it pretty much all day long — is most effective as a way to pitch, package, and spread news and ideas. It’s not a very good tool for actually developing new ideas, or arguing why tweaked versions of old stand-bys are still relevant. (If you’ve ever seen an extended argument play out on Twitter, you know how silly it is.)

My advice? Don’t Twitter — or don’t rely on Twitter, anyway. Instead, focus on blogging, or perhaps even on writing columns. Innovative policy ideas rarely fit into a 140 characters. But blogging allows both the length and detail needed to sketch out proposals and ideas with real depth, or just enough, anyway — while maintaining the speed and intimacy necessary to compete in the current news and communications environment. This is exactly what the left has done, and blogging has served them rather well: They use it to (among other things) dig up political scandals, counter Republican claims, advance lines of argument, build communities, and popularize policy research. That’s not to say that the right hasn’t made a single attempt to do any of those things, and it’s had some minor success with community organizing on Twitter, but, without the fixedness of a blog to rally around, I don’t get the sense that any of those communities are as stable, active, or permanent as the blog-centric communities developed by the left. And where the right has employed longer-form blogging, like with judicial appointments (even where I disagree), it’s had more success.

But mostly, the endless refrain amongst the GOP consultant class and Republican politicians seeking to innovate has been to employ social media, especially Twitter. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it’s just a newer way to rally the base around empty sound bites — a new media extension of Rovism that covers up the lack of substance underneath. Peter Orszag didn’t start a Twitter feed to respond to those critical of his health-care reform numbers; he posted to a blog. There’s a reason for this, and it’s one that the GOP has yet to grasp.