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Politics For the Disengaged

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By David S. Broder
Sunday, June 4, 2006

In a wonderful example of life imitating art, a group of serious political pros has taken the plot line of "The West Wing" and turned it into the most intriguing gambit yet seen for the 2008 election.

As fans of the now-canceled NBC drama know, the closing episodes showed newly elected Democratic President Matt Santos offering the position of secretary of state to his defeated Republican rival, Sen. Arnold Vinick. The Great Reconciliation not only brought Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda together for the closing shows but also satisfied the audience's hunger for national harmony in a time of bitter partisanship.

That's also the motivation for the creators of Unity08, a scheme announced last week to put forward an alternative ticket for the next presidential race, joining a Democrat and a Republican or headed by an independent pledged to forming a bipartisan administration.

The founders of Unity08 include Hamilton Jordan and Jerry Rafshoon, key players in Jimmy Carter's campaign and presidency, and Doug Bailey, a longtime adviser to Republican moderates and now publisher of the Hotline, a political newsletter.

The one leading sponsor who has held public office is Angus King, elected twice as an independent as governor of Maine. He came to see me last week, along with two impressive college students, Lindsay Ullman of Yale and Zach Clayton of the University of North Carolina, who represent Unity08's target audience of young people.

The sincerity of their motivation is as striking as the odds against their success.

Their hope is to harness the power of the Internet -- already demonstrated as a fundraising and recruiting tool in the 2004 campaigns of Howard Dean and others -- to mobilize the vast numbers of Americans who say they dislike their current political choices. A poll they commissioned found that 70 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with politics today and a similar percentage think politicians do not care about the views of people like themselves.

To provide an outlet for those alienated people, the Unity08 sponsors plan an Internet nominating convention in 2008. People who sign on can vote for the bipartisan ticket of their choice -- or an independent who would present a slate for a bipartisan administration.

Then those electronic "delegates" would be charged with qualifying the nominee for a place on their state ballots -- an often-arduous task for a third-party candidate.

The practical difficulties facing the venture are enormous. Persuading prominent figures to submit their names for consideration will not be easy. King suggested to me that if such a mechanism had been in place in 2000, Colin Powell might have run for president as an independent and been elected.

That is possible, but it would be a huge risk for Republicans or Democrats who have been elected to a position of responsibility to abandon their party and run under the Unity08 banner.

The electronic nominating convention would take place early in 2008 -- at a time when voters would know the concept but not the makeup of the Unity08 ticket. How many would participate is an open question. And the task of qualifying the nominee for the ballot in 50 states and the District of Columbia is one that has been a tough struggle for other third-party efforts.

Both polling and practicality suggest that the notion of an Internet-generated third ticket would have its greatest appeal to younger Americans. Ullman and Clayton, former presidents of the National Association of Student Councils, certainly are right when they say that many of their contemporaries are frustrated by the spectacle of both parties catering to entrenched interest groups and ideological extremes. Even though a senator from his home state, John Edwards, was on the Democratic ticket, Clayton said many of his friends "didn't like the choices and didn't vote" in 2004.

There may be more than a whiff of elitism in the Unity08 manifesto, which explicitly puts down social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, that are important to many voters, while emphasizing education, the environment, health care and energy. But there undoubtedly is a hunger in the land for consensus and an end to partisanship.

A more straightforward answer would come from a credible independent presidential candidacy or an agreement by credentialed figures from the two parties to form a ticket. The rigmarole of an Internet convention could give way, then, to an actual campaign.

But meantime, those of you who share the wish for some alternative can find out more at http://www.unity08.com .

davidbroder@washpost.com


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