McCain and the Internet: Why It Doesn’t Matter

My Georgetown colleague, author and all-around good guy, Garrett Graff this week wrote a blog posting in the online version of Washingtonian magazine entitled “McCain and the Internet: Why It Matters.”  I respect the points put forth, but Garrett, you are wrong, wrong, wrong — and I am here to help you see the light.

I encourage everyone to read the article, but the point is basically that McCain doesn’t get the Internet, so it is a metaphor for his larger cluelessness, and it should “give us pause:”

The fact that John McCain hasn’t yet learned how to use the Internet himself puts him not just at odds with most of the rest of the nation but, in fact, with many people in his own age bracket. More than a third of Americans 65 and older use the Internet, according to the May 2008 numbers from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Work by Forrester Research, which uses different age brackets, shows that more than a third of Americans over 55 regularly read blogs and online forums, watch videos, or listen to podcasts. This “Internet thing” isn’t some crazy person’s niche; it will be the driving force behind the next half-century of America’s economic growth. That John McCain isn’t part of that group of “wired seniors” should give us all pause coming into this fall.”

I love a good debate, so here goes.

  1. There is,  without a doubt, a WIDE gap among online activists and enthusiasts in the Obama and McCain camps.  Before penning this (old school reference), I consulted a friend of mine who, for a while, worked in McCain’s online shop.  He basically confirmed what we can agree upon, and that is that Obama and the Dems do it better.  “McCain Space” was embarrassing.  But McCain, like any president before him, is going to leave the blogs and Twitter accounts up to other people. I doubt that Obama wakes up every morning and checks the Technorati ranking on his campaign Web site.
  2. I’ve been in Washington long enough to know that the Internet is such as powerful force, that not even the dumbest of politicians can kill it.  The recent flap between the Dems and Repubs about “blocking” You Tube and Ted Stevens’ 2006 comment (presumably about “Net Neutrality”) –  “the Internet…is a series of tubes..” doesn’t scare me at all.  Not even Congress can kill this. I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago in Media Bullseye – Rubes, Tubes and Boobs.
  3. Once whomever the new president is steps foot into the Oval Office, I doubt that he will have time to touch a computer.  The Internet is all about getting to the White House, but you can pretty much forget about it when you’re there.  Unless you are Al Gore.  And I concede, and wrote a couple of weeks ago, that this will be the first presidential race in which the online activism will truly cross over into offline.
  4. To hell with online.  I want a president who is a Man With a Plan about the economy, the war on Islamic fundamentalists and other critical issues, not someone who is Tweeting with his pals.  I am fine that McCain is “clueless,” just so long as he gets the big issues.  Or Obama.  My point is that understanding the Internet does not crack my Top Ten List for what I care about in a presidential candidate.
  5. To your larger point, “…what kind of president would he be in a world where just as much commerce travels over fiber optics as over interstate highways? What kind of president would he be in a world where, for the first time this year, there are now more users of the Internet in China than in the United States? What kind of president will he be in a world where the greatest force for Iranian democracy today is its thriving Persian blog community?” — you need to think past the Beltway.  Washington, DC is the most active social networking city in the nation.  I would bet that there are a lot of people who don’t care about the Internet (Columbia, SC, St. Louis and Chicago round out the bottom), but about other pressing issues as well.

My final point is about the line”…John McCain seems to have missed this [Internet] movement—an oversight that may have profound implications both for his campaign and the entire nation if he is to become president.”  Propeller-heads like us care.  A farmer in Nebraska probably doesn’t.

Campaign?  Yes.

Nation?  Hell, no.




  1. Shocked Says: July 30, 2008 at 8:50 am


    I’m shocked to read that you think not understanding the Internet isn’t a serious problem for McCain. Granted, neither Obama or McCain will probably be checking e-mail or twittering with friends as President or checking their online campaign bank account as a presidential candidate, but not understanding how the Internet works and the issues surrounding the Internet (neutrality, taxes, even communication for terrorist activities, where ICAAN and W3C are managed) is a serious issue and an issue that cannot be overlooked. The next four years are going to bring forth many “net” issues which will require insight and foresight by the POTUS and will influence commerce and communications for decades. Not having even a general understanding of the technology is a disservice to the country (and especially people younger than 71).

    This also shows your lack of understanding of the issues at hand. The Internet is beyond Twittering and Blogs. Major issues which we will face over the next few years involves the management of the Internet and the push for the world to have it managed by an independent global agency (it is currently overseen by the US Government). How a new administration handles these decisions is extremely important. It’s not just the president, but the people the president appoints. If the president has NO CLUE can they really be trusted to appoint people who do?

    Another major issue, beyond what will happen to MySpace and Facebook, is implementing an Internet2 and IPv6 infrastructure. You probably don’t care about this. John Doe in Nebraska doesn’t care about this, but your and their use of the Internet over the next decade depends heavily on the decisions made in the next administration on how these technologies will be implemented.

    Finally, understanding “the Internet” is soon going to be understanding the telephone/cell as well as television. These technologies are merging and not understanding them does not allow for good decision and policy making for any of them.

    So, I’m frankly shocked at your support of someone who doesn’t understand (or care) about the future of communications, television…or, really, even how you are trying to make a living. McCain makes the wrong decision, Mark, and well, you’re out of a job.

  2. Dear “Shocked,”

    I wish you had listed your name — I listed mine.

    I am not even sure where to begin on your comment, except that I post all comments from folks that come to my blog.

    Here are a couple of important points that I think that you missed in my posting, and could catch if you re-read it:

    #1) The President does not make ANY decision without significant input and briefing from his advisers. As for your doubt that McCain would not appoint people who do not understand the Internet, you should know that in 1999, he sponsored S.1611, “…A bill to amend the Internet Tax Freedom Act to broaden its scope and make the moratorium permanent, and for other purposes.” It’s here, in Thomas:

    Did McCain understand the nuances and the nitty gritty of the bill? Probably not – most legislators get briefing papers and make up their minds based upon the input that they get. But did he surround himself with people who get that the Internet is something that should not and practically, cannot be taxed? Yes. Did he listen to those people? Clearly.

    Finally, you reveal your bias when you mistakenly posted that I “support” McCain. I never said anything remotely close to that. On purpose, I kept my article free of any form of political endorsement. What I did point out, and something that I am afraid was lost on you, was that there a lot more issues that will impact Americans in much more meaningful ways. Who governs in the Internet, how much we get charged and the convergence of technologies are things that the private sector will work out, Congress will regulate and the President will accept or not accept. John McCain or Obama burying themselves in these details seems unlikely to me.

    Oh – and about your point of me “being out of a job” — if a president and his advisers make a wrong decision on the economy, I am probably out of a job anyway. If our country makes wwrong decisions on the war on Islamic fundamentalism, as someone who works in DC, I might be dead. There are bigger issues than Internet2 and IPv6 infrastructure.

    Feel free to post a response, but why not leave your name?


  3. Tarun Reddy Says: July 30, 2008 at 11:19 am

    Hi Mark,

    I agree with your posting about the relationship between using the Internet and being able to set policy. Just because Sen. McCain doesn’t use the Internet does not mean he is incapable of understanding the issues associated with it.
    Or, to flip the argument around for a second, Sen. Obama never served in the military. Does that mean he is unqualified to talk about military policy?
    Of course not.
    It just means that Sen. Obama has a different perspective about the issues compared with someone like Sen. McCain.
    I would also point out that McCain has talked about Net Neutrality during the election. While some of his answers have been somewhat contradictory, he obviously understands that it is a complex issue.

    And yes indeed, there are issues way more important that net neutrality and IP V6 that the next president will need to address starting next year.

    As a society, we need to resist the urge to make sweeping generalizations about people based on snippets of information. Generalizations only muddle, rather than enhance, public debate.

    Tarun Reddy

  4. Nice shooting, Mark.

    Let me add that NO PRESIDENT uses email. They have underlings exchange messages. It would be a national security threat for the President to use email. Period.

    “Shocked” and people like him are trying to play both sides of the issue. The caterwauling about McCain being “out of touch with tech” is designed to reinforce stereotypes of being old, much like those who maligned Bush Sr. when he (allegedly) first encountered a barcode scanner. Well, DUH! The guy had been Pres or VP since 1980! You just don’t go to the grocery store for milk when you’re carrying The Football.

    To say this is about understanding technology and all of the cutting-edge issues involved is laughable. (Unless of course you want a Commander-in-Chief who understands the hurdles of migrating to an IPv6 addressing protocol, or can expound on the pros and cons of PHP vs. Perl.)

  5. Heh… I was still typing away on MY IPv6 reference before Tarun’s posted. FUNNY!

  6. Great post–and I agree. Anyone who thinks that leaders of any sort–from Presidents to Governors to State Reps.–know everything and understand every nuance of every issue that comes before them don’t understand how government works. A human being simply can’t know everything, and at least McCain’s said “I don’t get this” rather than memorizing a few talking points on the issue to placate anyone who might ask the question. Leaders need advisers, so they should pick them well.

    Fixating on this (McCain/Internet) is evidence of a certain level of myopia on the part of those fussing about this. There are (far) bigger issues that the next president will face than this. Only in our comfy, wealthy country can armchair secretaries of state sit back and even insinuate that this is a make-or-break issue.

    But then, I never got the ruckus about GHWB not knowing what the price of a gallon of milk was, or not having seen a grocery-store scanner. Who cares? I know how they work. I *don’t* know how a nuclear reactor works, or have any head for complex military strategy. Given the choice, I’ll take the president who knows that stuff–leave the grocery store scanner to me. 🙂

    (Also, great point by commenter Tarun about making sweeping generalizations muddling public debate. I couldn’t agree more.)


  7. Mark Story Says: July 30, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    Thank you ALL for your comments. I love to engender a good debate.


  8. Mark Story Says: July 31, 2008 at 4:55 am

    I just now went back and re-read these great comments. Thank you Ike, Tarun and Jenn. And even “shocked” for helping me make my point.

  9. I have to agree. McCain knew enough about the Internet to keep it from being taxed at the federal level. Being a simple Internet user (and that’s what we’re talking about here, right?) gives you no special insight into human behavior, other than it is one of many ways people can communicate. For a U.S. Senator to have a Facebook page, is quite frankly, gay. No one would be foolish enough to believe that he writes to it, and it would be cynically viewed to be nothing more than a PR tool. It’s actually realistic for an older guy to say, “yeah, the Internet’s not my bag, baby, but I can be forgiven for not editing my own Wikipedia page–I’m dealing with politics and public policy and a campaign, but I do have this web site if you want to read more about me.” The Dems likely have superior skills when it comes to social media and campaign strategies, but then again, they are always finding new ways to pack the same hackneyed policies into shinier suticases.

  10. I disagree.
    The thing is, if this were 1998, you could push all this off as no big deal, so what. But it’s 2008. The internet has drastically altered our lives, the way we live, the way we communicate, the way we interact with people in our lives and across the globe. The internet affects every facet of our lives today.
    Consider if, instead of not knowing how to use the internet by himself, McCain didn’t know how to use a phone by himself? How about if he didn’t know how to mail a regular letter?
    Perhaps he may be able to set policy without being a regular user, but it suggest to me that he’s out of touch with the world.
    Here’s a good example. My grandparents do not have an answering machine. They don’t believe in them. They figure, “if it’s important, they’ll call back.” Which may have been true years ago. Nowadays if I call someone and no one picks up, and there’s no answering machine…I wonder if anyone even uses that phone line period. An answering machine effectively tells the caller if they’ve dialed the right number in the first place, and suggests that you’ve called a person rather than a fax line or phone number that’s only in place so that someone can use DSL.

    And you’re wrong about farmers and people in rural areas, the internet has brought them into the larger culture. They are not as isolated as you may suggest. The internet is not just for people in big cities, it goes everywhere now.

    I’m going to exaggerate to make a point. Would we hire someone who had been living in a bomb shelter for the past twenty years, with no contact with the outside world or it’s technology to run our country? If not, then how much knowledge SHOULD our leader have about us or our lives?
    The last 3 companies I’ve worked for(rough economy!) have been heavily involved in technology and especially the internet. How can I expect someone who knows nothing about how I make my money to make decisions about it? How can I expect someone who doesn’t know how I and a great deal of Americans get their news, interact with family and friends, send pictures, buy all manner of objects, run entire businesses, and get all sorts of information, how can I expect someone who doesn’t know first hand how that all ties in to understand me or my life?
    Avoiding learning about the internet to the point where you can use it, suggests that McCain may have trouble understanding the people he governs. This is a tech age, we’re a tech people. To not know the internet is to not know us.

  11. Jason, I appreciate your point of view, but I cannot agree.

    Yes, we would be better if our leaders could be masters of anything and everything that touched our lives. But executives, especially CEOs, are NOT expected to be micro-managers. They are expected to surround themselves with people they trust, who share the same values, and DO bring requisite expertise.

    I invite you to read Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom,” as it details the dynamics that come into play in a world ruled by experts. The very worst thing that can happen to a society is when “experts” each take over their own niches and rule as they see fit.

    Just so you know that I’m no Luddite a–hole geezer, take a look at a piece I wrote recently. It outlines the REAL revolution that is coming with the internet. Our internet etiquette and culture of tagging will churn more political revolution in our society than any “mandate” that presidents run their own webservers. (It’s a lengthy piece – stick with it. )

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