I have been thinking about "political machines" and "backroom politics" lately after hearing these terms applied to election campaigns both in Hawaii and elsewhere.
In the election to fill the House seat vacated by Neil Abercrombie, Ed Case, who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Daniel Akaka two years ago, saw Colleen Hanabusa as having been handpicked by a Democratic machine led by Sen. Dan Inouye to oppose Case and prevent his re-entry into the House.
In the Senate primary in Pennsylvania, we're now told the opposite happened. Bill Clinton, at the behest of the White House, asked Joe Sestak not to challenge Sen. Arlen Specter, offering him an as-yet unrevealed unpaid appointment if he would stay in the House of Representatives. Sestak declined, and beat Specter, a former Republican who had crossed over to the blues after deciding the GOP no longer had room for moderates.
Any politician who acts shocked that such things could happen is pretending. These things happen all the time. All politicians know it. But should it happen? And what's the alternative?
Presidents try to accomplish what they say they will accomplish. Coaxing Congress into passing or repealing laws impels them to line up as many votes in their column as possible. The Sestak case wouldn't have been the first time someone was promised consideration in the future for playing along now. The most common form of this is, if you agree to sit out this campaign, you can have my endorsement for a future campaign.
The term "political machine" describes a political organization that runs well enough for the machine metaphor to be applicable, and technically you could apply it to a good political machine, but no one ever does. The term is so often applied to corrupt organizations that a politician can use it to smear powerful incumbents without having to exert themselves to the point of actually making allegations.
If you deny yourself the use of the term, forcing yourself to describe what Hawaii's situation is without a simplistic label, what have we got? We have got this. We have got, in Dan Inouye, a very senior senator who is adept at getting things accomplished for Hawaii on Capitol Hill. We have got, in Danny Akaka, a junior senator who is Inouye's contemporary, ally and friend. Brothers in arms, if you will.
But beyond that, what? Just how much of an organization is there?
No one would ever accuse Neil Abercrombie of being a machine politician. He knows how to work with others to accomplish mutual goals but he thinks for himself. Ed Case upset Inouye and Akaka by trying to unseat Akaka before Akaka was ready to go, but before that he worked with both senators cooperatively on many occasions. And what about other leading Democratic politicians? Was Frank Fasi beholden to anyone? Was Ben Cayetano anything other than his own man? Colleen Hanabusa could have been Senate president a lot earlier if she had been less independent.
How much of a machine is a machine that can't muscle either of two candidates to the sidelines even when it is clear that they will split the Democratic vote and send a Republican to Congress? The answer is that there isn't really a machine. There is a Democratic party organization that sometimes works cohesively and sometimes not, which can sometimes be effective in doing good for Hawaii but is less effective at doing good for itself. This should be no surprise, people being people.
The difference between the high effectiveness of the Democratic organization is accomplishing good things for Hawaii and its comparative ineffectiveness when acting in its own partisan interests is significant because it shows that what really coheres is something Republican politicians in Hawaii share, the desire to do good for the state.
Now the second question.
What's the alternative to parties and powerful politicians engaging in "backroom politics" by seeking to choose candidates to support?
There are two alternatives:
- Someone runs on his own, with very little chance of raising funds for an effective campaign.
- Someone is chosen to run, not by an established political party, but by a special interest group.
It can be argued that the support of entrenched politicians (blues or reds) may be the one practical counterweight to being beholden to developers or unions or big pharma or big oil or something else very large that you might not consider to share your own interests. But even here, the big money in Hawaii - I speak in relative terms - has a spotty record of accomplishing what it wants to for its own interests.