The Wendell Willkie wannabes

Ever since the rise and brief ascendancy of Howard Dean in 2003, left-wing bloggers have promoted the notion that their efforts make it possible for insurgent candidates to crash previously impenetrable gates erected by the party establishment. Critics of this view have focused, with cause, on the lack of success thus far of blog-promoted candidates like Dean. But it is perhaps a more fundamental criticism to point out that strong insurgent candidates, unassisted by the blogosphere, have long been a staple of American politics.

To focus only on the past 42 years, the list of insurgents who gained substantial traction includes Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, Gene McCarthy, George McGovern, Ronald Reagan (1976), Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, and Ross Perot. Clearly, the internet played no part in these insurgencies. Nor is television a prerequisite. In the pre-television era, Wendell Willkie came out of nowhere to win the Republican nomination for president in 1940, pushing Robert Taft and Thomas Dewey aside with the help of a volunteer organization that included a young Gerald Ford and that used a mass mailing campaign.

Willkie was a wealthy utility executive who almost overnight became the darling of his party’s liberal wing. His insurgency (recounted in fine fashion by Charles Peters in his book Five Days in Philadelphia) was fueled by young, upwardly mobile professionals, the big magazines of the day, and rich backers. The issue around which they coalesced was whether the U.S. should actively help foreigners combat fascism. In these respects, Wilkie’s insurgency resembles those of Dean and Lamont, with this key difference — Willkie wanted to help foreigners combat fascism.

To say that successful and almost-successful insurgent candidates are nothing new is not to minimize the accomplishment of any blog — Daily Kos, Firedogblackface, or whomever — that is instrumental in launching and/or promoting such candidates. Those operatives and amateurs who, using the methods available in their day, were instrumental in the success of Wilkie, Goldwater, McCarthy, etc. all rate footnotes in the history books. So too will today’s left-wing bloggers, if they are similarly instrumental at that level.

When it comes to the lower-level Lamont campaign, though, Byron York questions whether the left-wing blogs have been instrumental.

Lamont has raised $4.1 million, $2.5 million of which came from himself and $298,000 of which came from bloggers. Now, $298,000 is not nothing. But is it the sort of fundraising power that will upend Democratic Party politics? And will a Lamont victory truly be the Triumph of the Blogs?

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