US political rivals seek middle ground online

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Is America ready for a post-partisan moment?

Several top political strategists from both parties said yes this week, unveiling an online community they say will give millions of Americans a chance to discuss the issues of the day without the polarising tone that now dominates public debate.

“People have become siloed, unfortunately, because of an inability to feel they can have a conversation with someone with a different opinion,” said Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for President George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign. “Our goal is a measured and relatively even-handed conversation, so people feel like they’re connected.”

The project – dubbed HotSoup and modelled on social networking sites such as MySpace – is ambitious, optimistic, and a bit vague. But the big names behind it, and other recent ventures in the same vein, make clear an effort is afoot to redefine American politics.

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, this month launched Campaigns Wikia, aimed at what he calls “healthier” politics. A bipartisan team of politicos has just formed Unity08, pushing for a 2008 presidential ticket led by a candidate from each party. And this week, two former speakers of the House, Newt Gingrich, a Republican, and Thomas Foley, a Democrat, shared a Washington stage to lament the many ways in which Congress is broken.

The people behind HotSoup – including Joe Lockhart, Bill Clinton’s former press secretary, Mark McKinnon, who directed Mr Bush’s advertising campaigns, and Carter Eskew, chief strategist for Al Gore’s 2000 campaign – have invested their own money in the project, which they hope will be supported by ad revenue.

They do not flinch when asked if they deserve some blame for the rancorous tone of US politics, although their responses differ slightly, saying their political work “reflected the existing dynamic” (Mr Dowd), and was always about “engaging more people in public dialogue” (Mr McKinnon).

Now, as they try to create a virtual public square, they are targeting what pollsters have identified as “the influentials”, the roughly one in 10 people who shapes what friends and family think.

“Blogs tend to be communities where people can reinforce opinions that they already have,” said Mr Eskew. “We are creating a forum where people who might not agree with each other can at least hear each other’s side.”

The founders will use their connections to draw experts and elected officials into conversations with ordinary citizens on the site, which is scheduled to launch in October, just before the mid-term elections.

“For those engaged enough to vote, it is an exceedingly partisan time,” said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank. “At the same time, those voters will tell you they are deeply offended by the bitter partisan wars in Washington and abstractly embrace coming together, moderation and bipartisanship.”

Mr Mann says that mood can already be seen in the early scramble for the 2008 presidential nomination. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, has tried to tone down her liberal reputation, while John McCain has become the Republican frontrunner in large part because he is well known as a maverick and a moderate.

Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University, says HotSoup, Campaigns Wikia and Unity08 are “all of a piece”. “It is all just the beginning of a movement back to the centre.”

Whether the public will embrace all of these ideas, coming from the political elite so many already distrust, is another question.

“Can you create a space where influentials flock to that is a moderating space . . . when so much on the internet is driving people to the ideological right and left?” asks Ms Darr. Mr Mann agrees that forces for change are emerging. “But they’re almost operating apart from the real politics and governance of the country.”

The founders of HotSoup seem to concede as much. Despite this week’s venture, they said there was no reason to expect they would not find themselves on opposite sides of future political campaigns.

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