Last Wednesday at Hotline’s On Call blog, Marc Ambinder and Shira Toeplitz dropped a bombshell on the Democratic netroots the likes unseen since Jerome Armstrong was revealed a stock tout in a past life: Nicco Mele, the web strategist second only to Joe Trippi in credit received for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential run, has been informally advising 2008 presidential candidate John McCain. Not to get too pedantic, but Dean is an anti-war Democrat and McCain is a pro-war Republican. Mele’s McCain affinity seems largely based on his efforts, however symbolic, to get money out of politics.
After Dean, Mele went on to found the Democratic-oriented website building firm EchoDitto, which has built a solid reputation for itself. This revelation, however, is causing trouble not just for consultant Mele himself but for his consulting firm as well. And as we’ll get to below, some snap judgments about the announcement have yet to be revised.
Soon after the news broke, and while the leftosphere was scrambling to react, Mele confirmed at his own sporadically-updated blog:
While I currently don’t know what role I’d like to have in 2008, if Sen. McCain runs I hope to be helpful. This is a personal decision for me based on my own first-hand experience. I like Sen. McCain - I think he should be president!
Make no mistake about it — this is conduct unbecoming of a progressive blogger. In one comment section at Daily Kos, he got nicked “Anakin Mele,” and despite emphatic statements that he is not on the McCain payroll, more than a few assumed he’d been bought off.
But among bloggers who know Mele personally, fellow Dean alum Rick Klau stood up for him and identified as a concerned friend:
To those who’ve suggested he’s abandoned his principles to support John McCain, you couldn’t be further from the truth. Misguided? Maybe. A sell-out? No way.
Anonyblogger Vermonter noted in an entry cross-posted on more than one lefty blog that the original Deaniacs weren’t always motivated by partisanship:
One of the things that most people wouldn’t know is that quite a few of the main Dean web people were not at all sharply partisan about Dean and would often say favorable things about his opponents. And had very nuanced opinions about a number of topics. Meaning, well, they were very reasonable, non-dogmatic people. But, McCain, Nicco? Really?
Vermont NPR commentator Philip Baruth saw it as the “latest sign of the netroots migrating” rightward, conflating the episode with former Kerry hand Peter Daou going to work for Hillary Clinton — hardly a move of the same order, especially as Hillary has begun inching away from the Lieberman/Bush position on Iraq.
Most consequentially, however, lead Kossack Markos Moulitsas revealed in his take nothing we didn’t know already, namely that he can’t be friends with people whose political beliefs he doesn’t share:
I used to consider Nicco Mele, a top former Dean webhand, a friend until his rabid desire for regulating the blogosphere led me to write him off.
And he didn’t call for anything he hasn’t called for before, namely Mele’s exile from the left, which MoveOn’s Zack Exley proposed (in another dKos diary) in a considerably more thoughtful manner:
McCain has a credible chance of convincing large numbers of uninformed liberals that he is compatible with a progressive agenda. What he’s got going for him is his association with campaign finance reform, and a personal demeanor full of cultural liberal signifiers. … If he can swing a handful of defections of high-profile progressives, then he’s got a real chance of adding the phrase “McCain Democrats” to the lexicon in ‘08. … Democratic consultants and figureheads need to know that going off to work for McCain means losing their place in the rising Democratic tide.
It’s certainly an appropriate strategy; in national politics, you can switch allegiances exactly once, and as Mele is finding out, even that comes at a price. Of course, if McCain wins the presidency, McCain Democrats won’t be wanting for work. And even if McCain loses, there are worse fates than taking on corporate accounts.
But Kos went further, giving the impression that EchoDitto itself had a material connection to the campaign, because the “expertise and intelligence he is gathering from the following clients can and will end up as part of the McCain arsenal in 2008.” No one can argue with this excerpt, but it implies no organizational responsibility on the part of EchoDitto. The firm’s initial public statement was inadequate, but nevertheless made clear it would have no part in a Republican campaign.
If EchoDitto had remained silent, he might’ve had a point. But I’m still waiting for Kos and a host of others to acknowledge that one evening later EchoDitto New York dir. Harish Rao announced that Mele was stepping aside as CEO:
Nicco’s recent post about his support for Senator John McCain has caused quite a lot of ruckus. We at EchoDitto disagree with his decision. While Nicco does not work for Senator McCain, his support for a possible McCain candidacy runs contrary to many of our core beliefs at EchoDitto. … Everyone in this world has to follow their own heart. Nicco has agreed to, effective immediately, take a leave of absence from our company. We hope he takes some time to re-consider his position. I am assuming Nicco’s responsibilities for the duration of his leave of absence.
Somehow, I expect Rao will be losing the modifier from his “interim CEO” title before long.
Yet the Kos-imposed embargo remains in place. And so does the one from Steve Gilliard. More suprisingly — at least based on my own impression — so does the one from DavidNYC at Swing State Project, and he’d even allowed that the perfect solution would be for
McCain Mele to go.
All of which provides an interesting coda to the offensive ally renouncement wars (we really need a better name for that phenomenon) earlier this summer. It is surely too much to ask that bloggers distance themselves from every awful thing said by someone on their own side. But is it really too much to ask that they unrenounce after the key circumstances have changed? As renunciation warrior Glenn Greenwald once memorably asked, when does the “self-correcting” blogosphere start to self-correct?
Update: DavidNYC follows up, and asks some good questions that didn’t occur to me:
I recognize that political consulting isn’t bound by the same rules of professional responsibility, though perhaps it ought to be. So does this leave of absence satisfy me? I can’t say that it does, in part because we haven’t been told what it means. Does Nicco still have access to firm resources? To client information? Is he still drawing a salary or otherwise receiving money from the firm?
If Nicco straight-out left the firm, these questions wouldn’t exist. But even if EchoDitto answered them, I’d still be unsatisfied. How long will this leave last? Until Nicco changes his mind and admits his grave mistake? Until the end of the presidential election? Hell, what if - heaven forbid - McCain wins? Do we give Nicco a four-year or eight-year extension? And what if Nicco does come back - and then says he wants to support another Republican? What do we do then?
In an email to me this afternoon, DavidNYC pointed out that considering the degree of controversy, EchoDitto should have contacted its critics to alert them to Nicco’s leave of absence, something it apparently has not done. And as I said earlier, I don’t think Mele’s time with EchoDitto has long to go; they’ve revised their position once already, and I’d bet another is coming. If they don’t do this within another week or two, however, I think their critics would be correct.