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.
And then, for the people who were, despite all the obstacles, sufficiently self-motivated to join Unity08, the group couldn't keep its promises of self-organization and internal democracy. I'm indebted to blogger Jim Cook of Irregular Times, who has kept a gimlet eye on the group from the start, for documenting all kinds of problems:
The group promised to elect a bipartisan unity ticket funded primarily by small-dollar donations, but the bulk of its donations came in chunks of $5,000 and up.
It attacked the power of lobbyists but had two lobbyists as co-chairs of its rules committee (one of the lobbyists worked on the pharmaceutical industry's "Harry and Louise" campaign to kill healthcare reform).
It claimed to be hunting for independent candidates, but one budding Unity08 candidate had to wait at least three months to obtain the forms to collect the petitions needed to move from being a prospective candidate to being a qualified candidate.
It claimed to be devoted to a democratic process whereby its members would come together to nominate a ticket, but when dissenting comments appeared on Unity08's message boards, they were often summarily deleted by the group's staff.
Most serious, Unity08 promised a process it couldn't deliver. No one has ever built and administered an online convention where hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people were able to vote securely and trust the results. It just hasn't been done, at least not yet. Unity08's leaders premised their entire project on being able to deliver such a convention--and to do so on the first try.
Now Bailey and Rafshoon have latched onto the Bloomberg bubble, and they're hoping to pump it up into a real candidacy. Bailey gave me this rationale for a Bloomberg run: "Particularly with the economy going bad, I think there's a public awareness that the country is in trouble, that we face more crucial and tough issues than at any time we can remember: terrorism, the economy, the entitlement crunch, failing schools, failing parents, immigration, global climate change, inadequate healthcare coverage. On top of that, the political system in Washington is broken and can't come to common ground on any of these issues. I think the public sees that. Therefore I think that they're likely to be ready to consider rational change in the political system in order to find a way of solving all those other problems. That's what Bloomberg represents--an extraordinarily successful problem solver in the political world."
Rafshoon agrees. "After seven years, this country is ready for a competent leader," he said at a January press conference in Washington. "It's ready for a nonideological approach to our problems, and it's ready to stop the partisan bickering that goes on between parties and within parties."
The two men have launched a Draft Bloomberg Committee with their own funds, and say it is completely independent of Bloomberg. Curiously, the group is organized as both a political committee subject to FEC limits and as a 527 independent committee. "We have one committee that divides the funds that we receive," Bailey told me, with the first $5,000 of every donation going to the PAC and the rest to the 527. That's a financial arrangement that gets around a limit that hindered Unity08's fundraising efforts. The Draft Bloomberg Committee has taken over its lease.
Is this an election where competence can beat ideology? Certainly there is something in the air that is militating against the partisanship of the past two decades and buoying candidates like Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee. Apart from the hard-right 20 to 30 percent of the electorate that would be repelled by Bloomberg's liberal positions on gun control, gay rights and abortion, there's at least a plurality in his reach. Current polls show that Bloomberg isn't very well-known nationwide and draws about 12 percent in a potential three-way race. But that's without his running an active campaign; essentially, 12 percent is his floor, not his ceiling.
But I don't think the country is likely to rally to a split-the-difference bureaucratic problem solver. If Bloomberg runs, he has to take some clear stands to position himself in front of the other nominees, not just between them. Bloomberg should pay attention to the factors that helped Jesse Ventura beat two traditional politicians for the governorship of Minnesota in 1998. The key is to be positioned as the one truthteller in the race against two career pols who are too ambitious and beholden to their parties' dominant interests to do what is best for the country. To be sure, Bloomberg has none of Ventura's natural charisma, and I have my doubts about how far his patrician style will get him with the lunch-pail crowd. However, working-class people in New York City seem to like that he is not "owned" by anyone, and he could easily attack the major-party candidates as being too beholden to all the money they're raising.
If he runs as a no-nonsense skeptic of the "war on terror," cautious about unilateralism overseas, for dramatic action to combat climate change, for an end to wasteful government spending and for big changes that make the government conduct its business in a far more transparent and interactive manner, Bloomberg could conceivably draw a plurality made up of independents, moderate Republicans and insurgent Democrats. That's especially the case if the major-party nominees are seen as representing their establishments.
But the failure of Unity08 should give Bloomberg pause. True, it failed because it ran out of money, something Bloomberg doesn't lack. But money cannot replace a compelling message (just ask Presidents Perot, Forbes, Gramm and Connally). The current presidential field is a lot tougher than the candidates Bloomberg has faced in New York. And other than a few consultants and earnest college students, no one seems to be clamoring for an iconoclastic billionaire to get into the race.