You don't feel the future in Gerald McEntee's office. His desk chair is worn leather; he sports old-fashioned suspenders; he reminisces about rounding up nuns to vote for John F. Kennedy. His heavy tone and features are almost a caricature of what he is: a big-city pol, a union boss, a survivor from a faded political culture. And yet there is just a chance that this seemingly outmoded figure may herald a new wave. What's more, the revival of machine politics that he talks about might be healthy for America.
McEntee is the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a proud union with 1.3 million members. He is also a vice president of the AFL-CIO and chairman of its political committee. In the past year or so, he has attracted attention for redirecting the unions' political tactics: Away from expensive television ads, toward a brand of politics that McEntee practiced in his youth as a Democratic committeeman in Philadelphia. Then, before the advent of big money and televised air wars, McEntee fought elections on the ground: by working the union halls and urging folks to vote, then by reworking his turf on Election Day and dragging people to the polls if necessary.
There is not a city in America where that kind of politics survives, and Philadelphia is no exception: The city's outgoing mayor, Ed Rendell, has been recruited to run the Democratic National Committee thanks to his mastery of modern money politics. Even so, McEntee has done rather well by reviving the lost arts of his youth. In 1998 unionists across the country contacted co-workers and urged them to show up at the polls. They defeated a string of ballot initiatives aimed at disrupting their access to political cash. And they took some credit for Democratic successes in the Wisconsin Senate race and California's gubernatorial election.
The gains for the unions have been widely noted, but the gains for America's political culture may be more significant. Air-war politics drives voter turnout down. Indeed, this is often deliberate; negative TV ads are consciously aimed at an adversary's natural supporters. They seek less to persuade viewers to vote against the target of attack than to plant doubts among loyalists: to demoralize and spread apathy.
So-called "issue ads" are not much better. They spray tendentious sound bites around, leaving voters unsure whom to believe and tempted to tune out the whole process.
The unions' new-old politics works the opposite way. It aims to get loyalists to the polls, not merely to disorient opponents. As part of the McEntee drive, the unions claim to have organized the registration of more than 1.2 million voters from union households over the past two years, and they aspire to register another 2.8 million by the next election. They are proud that, in 1998, 49 percent of adults in union households made it to the polling booths, compared with a non-union turnout of 33 percent.
If the unions alone revive the traditional style of politics, the cacophony of television ads will scarcely fade: Even at its peak in 1996, union spending on TV was a fraction of the total. But other groups have recently shown signs of following the McEntee model. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce plans to focus next year more on galvanizing loyalists and less on scattershot TV ads. Karl Gallant, a Republican with close ties to Tom DeLay, aims to run union-style get-out-the-vote efforts in swing congressional districts. McEntee says that President Clinton is impressed by the union achievement and wants the Democratic Party to copy it.
None of this heralds a wholesale return to the machine politics of McEntee's youth: Social shifts prevent this. More people travel, which makes organizing them difficult. More people work, and for longer hours: There is no reserve army of underemployed housewives to staff party committees. Face-to-face contacts are increasingly rare; face-to-interface contact is taking over.
And yet precisely because this is so, the remaining moments of human interaction are especially powerful. We are all jaded by the anonymous messages that come down cable wires: Who paid for them? What was their agenda? We react by sifting according to source: If it comes from somebody we trust, we lend a sympathetic ear, and whom we trust often depends on whom we know personally.
After last year's election drive, a union post-mortem found that members positively liked being on the receiving end of an organizing campaign, and that nearly all who were contacted in person by a fellow unionist duly voted for the union-endorsed candidate. It may be a paradox of the information age that the machine politics of old are being rejuvenated.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.