HAWAII BETS ON MACHINE POLITICS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY
by Rep Charles Djou
Hawaii is a beautiful state blessed with great weather and a wonderful culture of Aloha. Hawaii politics is also unique. Political machines once dominated the American political landscape in the 20th century. Today, political machines have all but died off in the United States, but Hawaii’s Democrat political machine stubbornly retains control of power like nowhere else in the country.
This past election, as Republicans took control of the House and seized control of legislative chambers all across the nation; Hawaii elected a new Democrat governor, an all Democrat congressional delegation and left just one solitary Republican in the entire state senate. There are actually more non-communists delegates, in both nominal and percentage terms, in the Chinese National People’s Congress than there are Republicans in the Hawaii State Legislature. No U.S. state is as dominated by one political party as Hawaii is by the Democratic Party.
The differences do not end there. As the 112th Congress convened earlier this year, Americans elected a much younger and more dynamic class of Congressional representatives. Hawaii, however, returned the oldest congressional delegation in the nation. The four members of Hawaii’s current congressional delegation have an average age of 73. Led by Sen. Daniel Inouye, age 86, Hawaii’s congressional delegation is a testimony to the historical benefits of seniority and longevity that come with machine politics. Sen. Inouye, a medal-of-honor recipient, earned the respect of voters for his valor in World War II and his service to the state. As the head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Inouye has long brought more Federal dollars per capita to Hawaii than almost any other current member of Congress. Similarly, Gov. Neil Abercrombie has repeatedly pronounced that he will unlock a flood of Washington cash for Hawaii based on his decades of connections in D.C.
Hawaii’s machine based power structure around seniority will be tested as Washington continues to shift to a much younger and more transparent leadership style.
President Barack Obama’s campaign widely touted his Blackberry and made extremely effective use of You Tube, Facebook and new social media in his 2008 campaign. The new style in Congress is increasingly attune to a 24/7 news cycle based on multiple TV cable networks and a Twitter-based, blog-fed, internet-dominated media environment. Slow and quiet deal-making behind closed doors with information distributed by a few selected and friendly big-media outlets is as 20th Century as the cassette tape.
Looking at Hawaii’s congressional delegation and the new leaders in D.C. is a study in contrast. When Sen. Inouye was first elected to Congress in 1959, House Speaker John Boehner was in elementary school. Not only had Majority Leader Eric Cantor yet to be born, but President Obama was only born shortly after Sen. Inouye finished his first re-election campaign for Congress. Congress’ other old bulls, whose formative years covered WWII and who served in the chamber for decades – Sen. Ted Kennedy, Ted Stevens, and Robert Byrd – have largely passed on.
Despite these changes, Hawaii voters seem to believe that machine politics and a seniority-based system of the 20th Century that relies on the delivery of political pork and remains hidden behind quiet deal-making will continue to work.
This difference between 20th and 21st Century style politics is more than a distinction based on age. It is an entirely different style of governing. Today, politics is more polarizing than it was a generation ago. It is also much more personal. Changing public opinion and public policy today no longer rests exclusively with the old media of a few TV networks and selected important newspapers. Instead, elected officials increasingly communicate directly to constituents (and partisans) via blast email lists and twitter followers. Gone are the days when a single message could carry communications for a day, instead news stories are much more fluid and change by the hour. Extended and unedited talk radio, You Tube clips and telephone town-halls have replaced sound bites and newspaper ‘analysis.’ New media is the new medium of political communication with the public. As a consequence, the slower pace of close door negotiations and quiet seniority climbing is no longer the path to power in America.
Republican Kevin McCarthy, who better personifies the new Republican majority in the 112th Congress than almost anyone else, went from State Assemblyman to House Majority Whip in just four years in part by successfully marshaling the power of the new 21st Century style of politics. Even more dramatic, Democrat Barack Obama rose from State Senator to President in four years in part by successfully exploiting the new media. Ironically, it is unlikely that Obama, who was born and grew up in Honolulu, would have gotten so far, so quickly, under the slower, seniority centric, machine-based politics of Hawaii had he stayed in his home state.
Hawaii residents will soon directly see this new political reality. During the 2010 election, GOP candidates across the nation called for a moratorium to congressional earmarks, better known as “pork.” Last month in his State of the Union Address, President Obama agreed with the new Republican majority and boldly declared that he would veto any appropriation bill that contained earmarks. Earmarks are an essential part and critical perk of the slower seniority based political system that has dominated American politics in the 20th Century. Just as Hawaii’s senior senator has ascended to the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the rest of Hawaii’s congressional delegation looks toward loading Hawaii up with even more earmarks than ever before, politics has completely changed.
The Obama-style politics and the youthful 2010 class of freshmen Republicans in the U.S. House might be a passing fad or it might become a lasting trend. Hawaii has sent a congressional delegation that is betting the modern movement toward a much quicker internet dominated system of governing, based on transparency rather than pork, is temporary and our nation will eventually return to the 20th Century seniority centric system of quiet machine based power-dealing. The American people will render the verdict on Hawaii’s bet in the next couple of years.