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Political dividends for high-tech Bush backers
(IDG) -- The spoils of victory are visible all over ClickAction (CLAC)'s headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. Scribbled on an office whiteboard are acronyms of the marketing firm's prospective clients. CRP stands for the California Republican Party; PK for the Promise Keepers, a conservative Christian men's group; and GWB for the president-elect of the U.S.
What makes executives at ClickAction, which tailors e-mail campaigns for such brands as Brooks Brothers and Sara Lee (SLE) , think they have a shot at such conservative powerhouses? The answer is a prescient deal hatched in September by CEO Gregory Slayton, who just happened to be co-chair of George W. Bush's Silicon Valley campaign. Worried about the GOP's sagging Internet presence, the Republican brass turned to ClickAction to boost its online effort. The firm surprised even itself, Slayton says, by boosting the party's national e-mail list from less than 150,000 addresses to 1.1 million in 60 days. Now he hopes to capitalize on that success and his Republican contacts to attract new political clients.
Slayton is just one Silicon Valley executive poised to profit from what turned out to be a smart bet on Bush. Major campaign contributors such as computer tycoon Michael Dell, Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers and venture capitalist Floyd Kvamme have instantly achieved new stature. These elite GOP supporters can expect more than a photo of themselves grinning beside the new president. Their counsel will be sought; their phone calls will be returned. In fact, some Silicon Valley mandarins already are helping the Bush transition team evaluate appointments.
Former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale says the Bush team asked him to recommend candidates for the new administration. Barksdale, now a venture capitalist, co-founded the bipartisan lobbying group TechNet and serves as co-chairman of the Internet Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. A Bush transition spokesman would say only that Barksdale's advice had been solicited.
One Barksdale ally, Michigan Sen. Spencer Abraham, already has been tapped for a Cabinet post. Abraham, a Republican who was defeated in November, will become Bush's energy secretary. The technology industry also will find a friendly face in new Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who represented Silicon Valley for 20 years as a Democratic congressman.
Valley Republicans may find a few of their own names on lists of potential Bush appointees. Kvamme has been mentioned for a possible tech-related spot in the Bush administration. And interim TechNet co-CEO Lezlee Westine's name has been floated as a candidate for a White House position.
Bush's victory also means opportunities in the private sector. Last week, former Washington Rep. Rick White, a Republican, was named TechNet's new CEO.
"You get better access, oh sure," says Barksdale of supporting the winning presidential candidate, "I think our industry will have more influence that it's ever had in the past."
Some Bush backers had the opportunity to lobby Bush personally when the president-elect convened an economic policy summit in Austin, Texas, last week. "We're here to show our support," said America Online (AOL) chief Steve Case before meeting with Bush. Chambers stressed that tech leaders did not come seeking favors. "Many of us in the high-tech sector focused on education and a restimulation of the economy," he told reporters. "We truly want to see what's right for the economy, and then high tech will take care of itself."
However, all this newfound influence doesn't mean that Bush supporters will see dramatic shifts in technology policy under a Republican administration. Given the contentious nature of Bush's election and the tenuous balance of power in Congress, the new president will be hard-pressed to advance his agenda without bipartisan support.
"In some ways it may not be a new era," says Robert Atkinson, who oversees new-economy issues for the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank established by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Atkinson notes that in the last Congress, technology issues such as digital signatures, export controls and encryption attracted bipartisan support. And legislation promoting the expansion of visas for technology workers and normalized trade relations with China prevailed only through centrist coalitions.
Still, Bush's tech supporters expect the president-elect to at least push the issues that attracted them to his candidacy. Less government regulation, greater reliance on free markets and "a saner, flatter tax structure," are what Republicans will demand from the Bush administration, according to ClickAction's Slayton.
Already a bipartisan alliance is taking shape for education legislation, a top technology industry priority. A Bush proposal for giving states more control over how education funds are spent is similar to a bill advanced by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential candidate. The debate is in the details: Will Bush be willing to sacrifice his proposed $1.3 trillion tax cut to secure a deal? Will he retreat from his support of school vouchers? Such issues often divide the tech community. Sun Microsystems (SUNW) co-founder and chief scientist Bill Joy, who supported Vice President Al Gore, says he'd much rather see a deeper commitment to education and research grants than to the abolition of the estate tax, a Bush campaign promise. "Calling the estate tax a death tax is overstating it," Joy says. "I'd rather see it invested in schools."
It's no small irony that tech leaders are optimistic about a new President Bush, since so many found the original Bush administration shortsighted. In that bygone era when the U.S. battled Japan for economic supremacy and leadership in emerging microchip technologies, a top Bush administration official offended Silicon Valley sensibilities by suggesting that, in terms of economic policy, there was no difference between computer chips and potato chips. When the first President Bush took a slew of CEOs on a trade mission to Tokyo -- a trip best remembered by images of Bush vomiting in the Japanese prime minister's lap -- not a single tech executive was invited along.
GOP activists like Slayton see Bush as a much friendlier image for the party than Newt Gingrich and other Republicans who rose to power after his father's defeat. Slayton hopes his firm can help convey that notion to millions of Americans, through "personal" e-mail messages tailored using the magic of software. "How many Americans," he asks, "would like to be in a one-to-one communication with the leader of the free world?" Tech elite insiders are hoping that's more than an Internet illusion.
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