Dis Interests

NASHUA, N.H. -- Thirteen television cameras, enough reporters to fill two press rooms, and 1,200 New Hampshire Democrats came to see Senator Hillary Clinton Saturday night at the massive Sheraton Hotel just north of the Massachusetts line,. But to veterans of these events, something seemed missing -- and not just because the hotel no longer outfits its doormen in 15th Century Beefeater guard costumes to complement the building's simulation of a Medieval castle.

No, the deficiency was in the lobby and the corridor leading to the ballroom where the state Democratic Committee held its 100 Club Dinner. The place was crowded, but only with dinner guests, reporters, several platoons of young Clintonites handing out "Hillary" stickers, and a few (conventionally attired) hotel employees. What was missing was any activity resembling actual politics.

Usually, this dinner is an issues bazaar, with advocates of various grouplets handing out leaflets against nuclear power and global warming; for abortion rights, universal health care, and the sanctity of their state's first-in-the nation primary.

Not this year. Once they drove past the few out-of-Iraq-now signs held aloft without evident enthusiasm on the street outside, New Hampshire Democrats could enjoy their cocktails and dinner unaccosted by anyone with an objection, or an idea.

That's the 2008 campaign. In both parties, it is dominated by celebrity and money, but almost devoid of any impact from political constituencies, or "special interest groups" as they are known by those who disagree with them. Often assailed for drowning out the voice of the less-organized general public, this time they are the ones being drowned out.

On the Republican side, the religious right, the gun enthusiasts, the market purists, and the anti-taxers all lament their disappointment with the two candidates who dominate the polls. For the Democrats, despite John Edwards' eager courtship, organized labor has no early favorite, nor do gays, environmentalists, or teachers.

Neither do the traditional Democratic ethnicity and gender constituencies, though a candidate representing each one is in the race. Not long ago it would have been assumed that feminists would line up solidly behind Clinton, that black organizations would be supporting Barak Obama, and Hispanic groups would be starting vote-for-Bill Richardson clubs.

Clinton does have EMILY's List. Aside from that, where is everybody?

Gone, in some cases. As sympathetic an observer as Ruth Mandel of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University acknowledged that once-influential feminist organizations such as NOW and the National Womens Political Caucus are "not visible" politically. That sounds like a polite way of calling them kaput. The most active African-American political force these days is the Reverand Al Sharpton, notably unenthusiastic about Obama. Not one of the four politicians honored by the League of United Latin American Citizens at its National Legislative Awards Gala in January had anything to do with Bill Richardson.

From several perspectives, the waning of the special interest group would be welcome, depending on what replaces it. But what seems to be replacing it is show business. The front-running candidates in the polls -- Democrats Clinton and Obama; Republicans Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, maybe Newt Gingrich if he runs -- have been named the "rock stars" of the campaign. They hold their positions because of their fame, which helps them raise money.

And most of that fame is based less on politics than on performance. Clinton is not the Democratic front-runner because she has been an effective senator from New York for six years, but because she starred in America's most gripping real-life soap opera. Giuliani leads the Republican race because he strutted his stuff so impressively on September 11, 2001.He was good, but who would not have been? Governor and mayors love fires, floods, and earthquakes because all they have to do is show up (as George Bush did not after Katrina), look grim, and speak reassuringly to score political points. Had Elmer Fudd been mayor of New York that day, he'd have looked good, too.

It is possible that we are coming to the end of the era of constituency groups, or actual politics, and entering an era of celebrity dominance, in which fame, however attained, trumps accomplishment in governance or even charisma on the stump. (Only two of the leading contenders, Obama and Edwards, can really knock folks' socks off from the podium.) It would be premature to call this virtual politics, but the entertainment connection is hard to deny. Republicans dissatisfied with their current crop look for salvation from Fred Thompson, viable not for his eight years as senator from Tennessee but for his portrayal of the District Attorney on "Law and Order."

If so, then the conventional wisdom about this campaign is on target. With the compressed primary calendar rendering fund-raising more vital than over, that conventional wisdom says that in both parties, the race is effectively limited to the rock stars. Only they can raise the $75 million or so this year that will be needed to buy TV time in California and other big states planning to move their primaries up to February 5. The non-rock stars -- let's call them "the other guys" -- might as well quit. The Jimmy Carter strategy of using victories in Iowa and New Hampshire as a foundation to raise money for the later races is as obsolete as … well, as special interest groups.

Or maybe not. Four hours before that Democratic dinner began and some 45 miles to the northeast, Congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado spoke to 35 Republicans in the clubhouse of a suburban-style subdivision, espousing conservative positions on abortion, gun control, health care (but not the war in Iraq), and especially immigration.

"They call me a one-issue candidate, but at least I have one," he quipped after his talk.

Tancredo is not a rock star. He is articulate and pleasant, but by no means charismatic. But there is no mystery about why he is campaigning. Millions of Americans agree passionately with his hard-line anti-immigration views. No one else was dealing with the issue to their satisfaction. These millions were, then, a constituency that needed a voice. Hence his candidacy. Actual politics

So another possibility is simply that it is early, that interest groups may yet make themselves heard. If enough people are upset about an issue -- the war, health care, abortions, taxes -- they will organize and they will act, not necessarily on behalf of one of the rock stars.

The conventional wisdom is usually right; otherwise, it wouldn't be conventional. But every four years the conventional political community (present company definitely included) makes at least one major mistake. This quadrennium it could be the inevitability of the rock stars.

After all, another facet of actual politics is actual people actually voting. They have not yet done so, and they often refuse to do what they've been told they're going to do. If history is any guide at all, a few weeks before the first of those contests there will be a boomlet for one of the other guys -- stories saying, "Hey, look! This guy is getting good crowds, inspiring some enthusiasm." Suppose that guy actually wins the primary here, or the Iowa precinct caucuses. At the latest, the New Hampshire primary will be January 22. That's 13 full days before February 5. In politics, 13 days can be a long, long time.

Hillary Clinton's high command knows this. Talk to them and you realize they remember 1984, when Gary Hart surprised Walter Mondale in New Hampshire and almost parlayed that upset to the nomination. Mondale only headed him off because he had the support of most of those special interest groups.

Actual politics may survive. New Hampshire Democrats will hold another big event at this same hotel just days before their primary. Check to see if the lobby is full of folks handing out leaflets. And don't be too surprised if one of the other guys is giving one of the rock stars a run for his or her money.

Jon Margolis, the former national political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, is the author of The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964.

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