Growing A Third Party
Somewhere in America, there are 35,000 people looking at the preliminaries to the 2008 presidential race from a different perspective than that of millions of their fellow citizens.
They are the people who have signed up so far to participate in Unity08, the effort to launch a bipartisan third-party campaign with the first Internet nominating convention in history. I wrote about this unusual venture when it was launched last year by Hamilton Jordan and Jerry Rafshoon, both formerly of Jimmy Carter's White House; Angus King, the former independent governor of Maine; and Douglas Bailey, a veteran Republican consultant and political adviser.
I contacted Bailey recently to ask what had happened to this bold gamble, and he was the source of that 35,000 figure for the number of people who have lent support to the scheme. They obviously have a long way to go before they can claim to be a viable political force, but they are making slow, steady progress.
When I called Bailey, it had been just a week since the group announced that anyone who was interested could sign up at http:/
"The need [for a third party] is as great as it's ever been," Bailey said. "The partisan bickering in Washington continues nonstop, and the contest for the nominations in both parties is likely to make it worse."
He pointed to two problems that many of us have decried. "The leading candidates in both parties have suggested they will decline federal matching funds and plan to spend unlimited sums," he said. "They expect the bundlers -- the people collecting for them -- to raise a million dollars each, and what do they [the bundlers] expect in return?"
Second, Bailey said, "the likelihood is that the nominees of both parties will be determined by the first three or four primaries, which means that 99 percent of the people who will vote in November will have absolutely no say in the names that are on the ballot. It's not surprising that they may be looking for an alternative."
None of that is implausible. But where does the alternative come from? Bailey and his partners have an answer, but the process they have in mind still strikes me -- as it did when it was first outlined -- as extremely cumbersome.
In a few weeks, they will outline provisional rules for their own nomination process, determining how candidates will qualify and how the voting will be conducted. The goal is to pick either a political independent for president or to form a ticket with both a Democrat and a Republican. Feedback will be welcomed before the rules are made final, he said.
Then comes the hard part. Thirty-nine states allow a new party to petition its way onto the presidential ballot, without having a named candidate, but the deadlines and numbers of signers required vary widely. The first test will be whether Unity08 attracts enough volunteers and money to carry out that effort.
And then comes the challenge of recruiting a candidate or candidates for Unity08 to back. If its organizers had a compelling person already lined up, their task would be much easier, but they do not.
I suggested to Bailey that the underlying premise of this campaign -- the need to cure the partisanship of Washington -- might be undercut if the Republicans and Democrats nominated people who are not closely associated with those partisan battles -- mentioning Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee on the GOP side and Barack Obama and Bill Richardson among the Democrats.
"To the degree that the nominees of the two parties recognize that bipartisan leadership is essential, then it shows the political process has made a self-adjustment, and that is good," he said. "But the usual game is to target the base of your party, rile it up with wedge issues and ignore the middle.
"If they do that again, we will be ready. It is possible the parties can right the ship themselves, but I don't have a lot of confidence in that happening."