In May 2006 Doug Bailey and Gerald Rafshoon, two veteran political consultants who worked, respectively, for Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976, announced the creation of Unity08, an attempt to build a “virtual” online party to nominate a unity ticket for 2008. The project, which had the backing of former independent Governor Angus King of Maine, actor Sam Waterston and maybe one keg party’s worth of idealistic college students, got a lot of media attention, at least at first. By late last year, it claimed that more than 100,000 people had signed up to be virtual delegates to its online convention. But in January it quietly closed its portals, blaming the Federal Election Commission for limiting its fundraising options.
Now Bailey and Rafshoon have launched a new crusade, a fifty-state petition campaign to draft New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg to run for President as an independent. Is their new cause headed for the same fate as Unity08?
It’s very hard to build a viable third party in America. The main third parties–the Greens and the Libertarians–have achieved some longevity mostly by turning inward and focusing on ideological purity. But neither is up to the task of electing anyone to an office higher than city councilor or state representative. A would-be independent also isn’t helped by the fact that the distinctions between the two major parties seem sharper now than they were in the 1990s.
Finally, the Internet is changing the political game in ways that subtly weaken third-party rationales. Power is shifting away from capital-intensive, unaccountable hierarchies toward more people-intensive, open networks of individual activists. Or, to put it another way, it may make more sense to work for change inside the netroots paradigm rather than going outside the two-party framework to struggle for a long-shot candidate.
I’ve spent time with Bailey and Rafshoon, and both seem like honorable men, motivated by a sincere sense that the political process is broken by big money and special-interest domination, and that the time to fix it is running out. But their Unity08 project was riddled with contradictions and flaws. For example, they started out promising to build an online membership of 25 million delegates, then downgraded their plans to 10 million. By last fall, with fewer than 100,000 members, they had revised that goal downward again, to 1 million. And yet, at no point in Unity08’s existence did the group achieve a growth rate that would enable it to reach even that goal.
Why? Because Bailey and Rafshoon started with a narrow and artificial base of aging political consultants and college kids and never expanded it. For a country that has a one-third nonwhite minority, they had no visible representation of blacks or Latinos. Nor did they tap any organized constituency–be it labor, small business, big business, retiree organizations, vets, church groups–that might help spread Unity08’s reach.
In fact, the only base Unity08 had was the media. The group’s best days of growth were when it got actor-spokesman Waterston on TV. But an organization that grows only when it gets media coverage is a remarkably weak organism. A little bad media coverage (or silence) could kill it easily.
It also didn’t help that Unity08 wasn’t really about enabling independent voters, or dissatisfied Democrats, Republicans and independents, to hammer out an agenda. The big decisions about the agenda were made in advance, by its founders. Thus certain issues, like entitlement reform, were deemed “serious” and others, like choice, were deemed “divisive.” Who had the authority to make these decisions? Why was it withheld from the members? No answer was given.