Waiting for the political e-revolution

LOS ANGELES -- Still waiting for the Internet to grab the beltway by the ankles and shake all that soft money and special interests out of its pockets, turn politics upside down like it did with the so-called old economy?I know I am.

LOS ANGELES -- Still waiting for the Internet to grab the beltway by the ankles and shake all that soft money and special interests out of its pockets, turn politics upside down like it did with the so-called old economy?

I know I am.

Acres of HTML code and print space have been spent, in the lead up to this election cycle, talking about how 2000 could be like 1960: the year John F. Kennedy won the first truly telegenic presidential election after that debate with Richard Nixon. The power structure was changed irrevocably by 1960 -- TV, not print, was now the king-making medium. Could 2000 see the Net's coronation?

Ironically, 1960 was the last time the Democrats came to Los Angeles for the week-long lap of honor that is a national convention -- and heard JFK's "We're standing on the edge of a new frontier" speech. Of course, just about every presidential candidate tells us they're standing on the edge of a new frontier, and George W. Bush and Al Gore are no different in that regard, but what about that New Frontier the Internet was going to usher in?

Ever since the 1998 elections I've heard politicians, political consultants and lobbyists alike tell me that the Net was going to force geometric changes in everything from fund raising to voting to grassroots campaigning. At least one consultant, who shall remain nameless, was adamant 2000 was the year of the revolution -- November would blow away clueless beltway politicians and apparatchiks.

Judging by what I've seen thus far of election 2000, however, it's not yet safe to pass out the Che Guevara T-shirts. Sure, there have been some significant advances thus far -- the Bill Bradley campaign winning the right for credit card donations (e-donations, in other words) to qualify for matching Federal Election Commission funding; John McCain becoming the first presidential candidate to use online ads; the Arizona primary successfully ushering in electronic voting; Steve Forbes' Webcast announcement of his candidacy (another first); a marked improvement in the depth, breadth and usefulness of candidates' sites (the Forbes site being a particular standout); and, tangentially, the Just Move On e-mail petition and the use of the Net to calibrate Seattle's World Trade Organization protests -- but I'm not seeing anything that suggests the end is nigh for TV-centric campaigning.

Sitting in the press box Wednesday night at the Democratic National Convention underlined that impression. The Democrats, much as the GOP did in Philadelphia, turned the Staples Center into a giant TV studio, more like a "The Tonight Show without David Letterman" than a prelude to the nomination of a presidential candidate. All the elements were there -- the warm-up acts of B-grade Democrats, the band behind the stage, the synchronized cheering of the delegates, the guest appearances of "NYPD Blue's" Jimmy Smits and "Space Cowboy" Tommy Lee Jones, the star turn of Sen. Joe Lieberman, and, finally, a tease to Thursday night's show with the tantalizing cameo of Al Gore.

And everyone -- everyone -- read off the TelePrompTer.

Call me a dreamer, but I think we deserve a better brand of democracy than this -- and believe the Net can help us get there. I'm talking about third party Web sites that, with a click, let me compare candidates on the issues, rather than rhetoric. I'm talking about using the Net to increase voter turnout through electronic registrations and online voting. I'm talking using the Net as a truly grassroots campaigning tool and media outlet, for everything from mailouts to newsletters to Webcasts to fundraising. I'm talking about Netcentric campaigning giving an outsider a fighting chance to unseat a beltway incumbent. It's not a revolution, but at least it's more representative.

Realistically, the Net's most dramatic application as a political tool will probably be at the regional level in highly wired areas -- informing and mobilizing a hitherto apolitical group of individuals to vote for or against a particular candidate or proposition. On a national -- particularly presidential -- level, though, it's more likely to work as an intra app. By that I mean revolutionizing campaign organizations -- and cutting costs -- through day-to-day functions, e-mail, mailing lists, instant messaging, intranets and online fundraising.

In other words, we're going to have to put up with Hollywood conventions for a while.