I received the January/February edition of the Atlantic last week - probably a little late due to it being a Christmas gift-subscription. This issue has a special focus on the state of the union, highlighting 4 critical areas: post-Katrina education reform in New Orleans serving as an experiment for the rest of the nation, Chief Justice Roberts' views on judicial temperament and his goals for leading the Court, a profile of a gene-mapper and his efforts to use this technology to help find new energy sources, and a brief exploration of Unity08. All of these articles are interesting, especially the education & court readings, but Surprise Party was probably the most intriguing, at least at first. Apparently a group of old-time political operatives and campaign managers got together for dinner just before the mid-term elections, voiced their concerns and frustrations with the way campaigns (and politics) are being run at present and decided to do something about it. The players are Doug Bailey, who worked for President Ford, and Jerry Rafshoon and Hamilton Jordan. The latter two worked for President Carter's campaign.
What they want to do is field a bi-partisan ticket, chosen by the first online political convention made up of anybody who gets on the website and signs up. Their goal is to retake the center of American politics by putting up centrist candidates who, due to the bipartisan nature of the ticket, will appeal to voters firmly in the middle. Not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Its a Goldilocks kind of political endeavor. They're hoping that America will be largely dissatisfied with the candidates the main parties pick, thus building momentum for their ticket and giving the middle a voice. They're also avoiding money from PAC's and businesses, and are instead relying solely on personal donations to fund the campaign. Due to the novel nature of their endeavor and their reliance on the internet, they think they should be able to do this on the cheap, which sounds reasonable for the initial stages.
The article is rather upbeat, painting a rather rosy picture with poll numbers, innovators that have gotten onboard with the group and even making comparisons with the feel-good Clint Eastwood movie "Space Cowboys." For anyone dissatisfied with the current political climate and the way money & special interests seem to trump common sense and whats-best-for-the-nation, Unity08 sounds like a winner.
At least until you visit the website.
A brief survey of the online forums reveals that all this come-togethery-feel-good-ness isn't quite working out as planned. The old, contentious and deep running issues still come to the fore. Will Unity08 be pro-choice or pro-life? Its looking to be pro-choice, with most pro-life members getting flamed or accused of religious bigotry (perhaps not too surprising given one of the major fundraisers is Roger Craver, a man who helped create and fund NARAL and NOW). The same is true of the issue of gay marriage. Many are willing to cede that the word "marriage" should not be used to describe gay civil unions, but most of those also want to eliminate the word from all legal references as well. Essentially, they want the government to recognize nothing but civil unions, regardless of the participants, and leave "marriage" up to those religious folk who choose to call their unions such. Those who have their doubts or concerns are roundly ignored.
Is Unity08 for or against troop withdrawals, time-tables, surges and all the other stuff swirling in debates about the Iraq war? You honestly can't pin it down to any one plan, but it seems to be landing well on the side of a near-term withdrawal. Personally, I think that's a good idea for reasons I may explicate in a later post, but I don't know how that's going to play to middle America, especially if there isn't a lot of sound reasoning behind it.
There are, of course, many other issues that need to be discussed, but from what I've seen, most of the participants are ending up left-of-center in their views, which does not bode well for Unity08's chances. It is also not clear how having a Republican president and Democrat VP (or vice versa) will result in any more bipartisanship than we currently see. Whoever is the top man (or woman this time around) still wields the greatest power and is still at least somewhat beholden to his party and its base. There is nothing to say or require that the VP will have any more power or say in the way things are run. If the President doesn't want to let them throw their 2 cents in, they will be sidelined.
Representative of this problem is the attitude of many on the website who don't even want to hear opposing views. One such poster requested a function to screen all comments from "those who aren't contributing positively to this movement." Many of the threads seem to be degenerating into little more than ad hominem attacks, petty stereotyping and the airing of old grievances. Is this any way to build a new political movement? One that aims to shake up the current system and retake the executive office for the center of American politics that seems to be largely ignored? It sure doesn't seem like it. I don't know how Unity08 can expect to overcome these issues, especially with a nearly non-existent presence of the founders & leaders in the web-forum. Since these forums are the only way Unity08 can build a platform or identify the qualities they want in a candidate, these seems tantamount to suicidal incompetence.
Ultimately, I hope Unity08 is able to shake things up a bit. I'd like things to not be so caught up in the extremes of either party. But I also seriously doubt that this kind of ground-up democracy can really work in such a polarized era. Unless the leadership takes on the burden of seriously trying to build a bridge and find constructive ways forward, I think Unity08 will end up as little more than an interesting historical footnote.