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Unity08, Bloomberg and the Specter of an Independent for President

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, January 10 2008

Before I started writing about the intersection of technology and politics, I spent many years reporting on and analyzing the efforts of third-party and independent political candidates for office. Eventually that led to a book, "Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America", which was published in 2002, covering everything from the rise of Ross Perot and the election of Jesse Ventura to the Ralph Nader campaign of 2000 and the birth of NY's Working Families Party.

I don't write as much about third parties anymore, for a couple of reasons. First, I think the main third parties in America today--the Greens and the Libertarians--are both far too ideological and inward-facing to be meaningful vehicles for change. Second, I think that, to some degree, we have a more vital two-party system than we did in the 1990s, or at least the distinctions are sharper. Third, I think there are other plausible vehicles for social change, in addition to third parties, and the internet has, to some healthy degree, begun to shift power away from capital-intensive, unaccountable hierarchical organizations to more people-intensive, open networks of individual activists. Or, to say that is plain english: there is more potential for system change in people using disruptive technologies to organize themselves, than there is in going outside the two-party framework to try to elect longshot candidates.

That said, I have had a number of requests to tackle the question of third-party/independent politics in 2008, both in terms of evaluating Unity08, and in terms of the speculation that Mayor Mike Bloomberg might run. So, here goes.

A Shell Game
First, here's my take on Unity08, the attempt by a couple of well-meaning veteran political consultants to build a "virtual" online party and hold a convention to select a "unity" ticket for the White House. You may have heard that the group just announced that it was drastically scaling back its operations, blaming the FEC for limiting its fundraising options. I think the problems with Unity08 have been apparent for much longer. They all became crystal clear to me after I spent a day at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, speaking at a conference on third parties, where I met the co-founders of Unity08, Democratic consultant Gerald Rafshoon and Republican consultant Doug Bailey.

Rafshoon and Bailey both seem like honorable men, motivated by a sincere sense that the political process was broken by big money and special interest domination, and that time was running out to try to fix it. But their 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 this fall, with less than 100,000 members claimed, they revised that goal downward again, to one million. And yet, at no point during Unity08's existence did the group ever achieve a growth rate that would enable it to even reach that lofty goal.

Why? Because they started with a narrow and artificial base, and never expanded it. Unity08's founding group was made up of other aging political consultants, plus a smattering of college kids. For a country that is 1/3 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 Sam Waterston on TV. But an organization that only grows 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 Ds and Rs and independents, to hammer out a real agenda. The big decisions about the group's agenda were made in advance, by its founders. Thus certain issues were deemed "serious" and others 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, documenting all kinds of problems:
-The group promised to elect a bipartisan unity ticket funded solely by small dollar donations, but the bulk of its own donations came in chunks of $5,000 and up.
-It attacked the power of lobbyists in politics, but had two lobbyists as the co-chairs of its Rules committee (one of these lobbyists worked on the pharmaceutical industry's "Harry and Louise" campaign to kill health care 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 online message boards, they were often summarily deleted by the group's staff.

Most seriously, 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 securely vote and trust in the results. It just hasn't been done, as of yet. And Unity08's leaders premised their entire project on being able to deliver such a convention--and to do so on the first try.

Bloomberg's Day?
Now that Unity08 has announced that its going into semi-limbo, admitting that it doesn't have enough money or members to achieve ballot access in fifty states, there's really only one question left: Will Mike run? (Probably this was the only question seriously pondering all along, and indeed, Rafshoon and Bailey have apparently left Unity08 to work on a draft Bloomberg effort now.) And if he does, can he win?

Last summer, I wrote a piece for the Nation arguing that Bloomberg wasn't likely to run for president, but that he was wisely taking advantage of our dysfunctional two-party system to leverage some influence over the 2008 debate. Thus everything from his announcement of his leaving the Republican party to become a registered independent, to his trip to Oklahoma last week to attend a bipartisan conference on national unity should be seen as Bloomberg playing cheap cards that keep him in the national limelight, without him really having to become a candidate, with all the attendant risks. I still think that's what he's up to.

But I can see a scenario where Bloomberg actually decides to run, and possibly even wins. There are two parts to this scenario: the external conditions and the message package he decides to use.

First, what external conditions are best for a Bloomberg indie run? The public has to be unhappy with the direction of the country (check), inclined to blame both parties (check), and dissatisfied with the major party nominees. Two out of three is not enough. Bloomberg needs the other two nominees to be the most evocative of what is wrong with the political establishment. In my opinion, he needs a Clinton-Romney match-up.

If the major nominees are Clinton and Romney, there will be insurgent forces inside both parties unhappy with the outcome. Some Obama and Edwards voters, and some McCain, Huckabee and Paul voters could be attracted to another choice. In particular, I am thinking of people who want honest, effective government, as opposed to people who are strong ideologues.

On the other hand, if Obama gets the Democratic nomination, and either McCain or Huckabee gets the Republican nod, I think the window for Bloomberg is much smaller. A Huckabee might drive moderate Republicans outside of the party to Bloomberg, but not nearly as much as a Romney, in my view.

The economy is the other unknown variable. It could help a Bloomberg bid if the economy is in recession by this spring. After all, he's a successful businessman who has stewarded New York City's bduget through thick and thin, and he could arguably position himself as the only candidate with the smarts and the guts to tackle America's financial problems. Unfortunately for Bloomberg, though, he has to decide whether he's running by early March at the latest--and its doubtful that the economic signs will be so clear by then.

So, let's say he runs. Can he cut a path between the two major parties and get a plurality of the vote?If Bloomberg runs as the kind of candidate David Broder might embrace, a mushy centrist, forget it. There's no clamor in America for a "bipartisan" laying down of the lion and the lamb. No one wakes up wondering, when will David Boren and Sam Nunn ride in to save us?

But I do think Bloomberg has a chance if he pays 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 truth-teller 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 really goes in a sports bar. However, working class people do like that he is not "owned" by anyone, and he could easily attack the major party candidates as too beholden to all the money they're raising.

If he runs as a no-nonsense get-things-fixed type who is a skeptic about subsuming everything to the War on Terror, cautious about unilateralism overseas, for serious action to combat climate change, for serious action to cut back wasteful government spending and balance the budget, and for big changes making the government conduct its business in a far more transparent and interactive manner, look out. There's enough of a sense of partisan exhaustion, and of a desire to just get things done, to give Bloomberg real legs.

What about all of his liberal positions on guns, gays, choice, etc? In a three-way race, I don't think they matter. The people who hate Bloomberg's liberalism on those issues are part of the hard-core Republican vote. They're not reachable by Bloomberg anyway.

All that said, I think Bloomberg's moment isn't likely to happen. The Obama-Clinton dynamic--even if it ends up with Hillary on top--may jar enough changes loose in the process that voters will think they are getting something fresh instead of a Clinton Restoration. And if Obama wins the battle, I bet Bloomberg endorses him.