The technology has changed but politics hasn't. In many ways, technology has changed the way we see politics, but in other ways, it's just made politics more political.
It seems to me that the way we present politics has gotten much less cynical than it was just, say, fifty years ago. Throughout the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, politics was something that happened in smoke-filled backrooms, or in raucous assemblies, like Tammany Hall. Many of the country's leaders were so-called "machine politicians."
The machine has not gone away, nor have the smoke-filled backrooms, but that's just not how we think of them anymore. The change is probably television. Television turned the political conventions into theater and pushed the backrooms further into obscurity.The players of the game changed, but the game itself didn't.
Under the blazing glare of television, the old fat-cat puppetmasters, the King makers who populated those back rooms shriveled up and the machines they ran followed. Tammany Hall disappeared in the '60s. But the need for a machine didn't.
Now, however, the machine is much more fleeting. Machines come together and disband before and after every election cycle. The importance of these operations must not be underestimated. Over the last 48 years, machines have determined the outcomes of elections far more than anything else. You can read all you want about the height factor or the hair factor, but for my money, it's all about the machine -- from McGovern's upset in the Democratic primary in '72 to Barack Obama's upset in the Democratic primary this year.
General elections aren't any different from primaries in this regard and this is a lot of what we're seeing now. Being a community organizer may or may not be a good background for a president, but it's a superb one for a campaigner. Obama has built a machine that is certainly one of the strongest in recent memory. And a big part of what has allowed him to do it is the Internet.
Money isn't everything, but it does give you a handy bunch of numbers to measure a campaign by. Even by a couple of weeks ago, Obama had raised more than $600 million, almost as much as the total raised by both major candidates in 2004.
That gives you a sense of the scope of Obama's machine, but it's so much more than a fundraising engine. Obama has more offices, more people, and it's all more organized, and more efficient. And it has been by leveraging technology that he's gotten there. His website is not just a brochure or infomercial, it is a sophisticated system to manage his operatives and volunteers.
This is not an accident either. It seems to me the Democrats have figured out that it was their machine that's been lacking. Once the dominant party, they have been taken apart by the Republicans over the last 20 to 30 years. The Republicans were better campaigners. Again it was largely through technology. Republicans had more money not so much because they appealed to the wealthy, but because they were better at direct mail.
The Democrats have gone to school at the Republicans' knee however. And they're better at the Internet. He may have fallen apart, but it's not for nothing that Howard Dean became the party chairman. He first showed the way to the Democrats.
If this works, we could be at the beginning of a longer Democratic trend than just one or two elections. Even though the machines form and dissolve with each election, the professional political operatives stick with their party -- as they say in politics you have to dance with them what brung you.So the party that figures out how to make the best political machine tends to hold onto power.
And the machine isn't all bad -- it got us through the last 200 years. In the words of the last great political bosses, Richard J. Daly, mayor of Chicago, "Good government is good politics."