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Issue No. 90 (June 1, 2006) -- Mark Satin, Editor
Although creative-centrist books, conferences, and policy proposals have flourished since the new century began (see the contents of this website!), there’s been little in the way of organization-building that could challenge the two major political parties.
The protests and Shadow Conventions at the Democratic and Republican conventions (see HERE) led nowhere; the New America Foundation has its hands full just being the most pragmatic-and-visionary think tank on the planet (see HERE); and the Democracy in America Project has done little since holding its founding meeting two summers ago (see HERE) except hold more meetings, announce a series of high-minded goals and purposes, and adopt a mouthful of a name, “ReunitingAmerica: A Transpartisan Campaign of Political Reconciliation.”
As of two days ago, that whole picture changed.
At last, there’s a creative-centrist political organization -- Unity08 -- with the savvy, resources, and determination to challenge for the Presidency in the year 2008.
Although the nomination process will be grassroots (or rather, netroots) to the core, two criteria are set in stone: (1) Unity08’s Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates must come from different major parties (or be independents running as a "unity team" with members of both parties), and (2) the candidates must agree to seriously address the most crucial issues of our time.
And you’ll get to help nominate them. If all goes well, "up to 20 million Americans" will choose the Unity 08 nominees during an online nominating convention in mid-2008.
Origins of this brainstorm
Unity08 was announced to the world May 30 via conference call and press release. But it wasn’t hatched on the spur of the moment.
“This has been building for six to nine months,” Shane Kinkennon, thirtysomething publicist for Unity08, told me shortly after issuing the press release.
Hamilton Jordan and Jerry Rafshoon (former Carter aides) and Doug Bailey (former Ford aide) had often talked -- among themselves -- about the dismal state of our politics, Kinkennon said. More recently they found themselves agreeing that partisan posturing had kept the two parties from being able to honestly address our most pressing problems.
Then they began "talking about the Unity08 concept . . . as a practical matter [and] bouncing it off bright young people they knew." Finally they decided to stick their necks out.
They called in all their political chips (you can imagine how many consultants, businesspeople, and activists the three aides had gotten to know over the years), tentatively established Unity08 as a section 527 organization (though it will become a formal political party if the Federal Election Commission prefers), and helped pull together a 31-member Founders Council -- still very much in process of formation -- to carry the work forward.
The organization is the people
Having had something to do with the founding of several political organizations over the years, including the New World Alliance, the U.S. Greens, and ReunitingAmerica, I am convinced that you can’t even begin to understand political organizations until you look behind the rhetoric and see who’s centrally involved.
And when you look at the Unity08 Founders Council, the first thing that leaps out at you is its genuine political diversity. There are mainstream Democrats (Jordan and Rafshoon are the best known), mainstream Republicans (Bailey and former Wyoming GOP State Chairman Tom Stroock), one of the most respected Independents in the U.S. (former Maine Governor Angus King), and a nice sampling of entrepreneurs (such as Florida biotech pioneer Steve Gorlin) and grassroots activists (such as Boston health justice maven Cathy Dunham).
Or maybe the first thing you’ll notice is the gender diversity. At least 13 members of the Founders Council (42%) are women.
The third thing you’ll notice is there’s already been a substantial attempt to add young people to the mix. Thirteen of the founding members are college students (42%!), another is a high school student -- and they’re hardly your token students. One is a student council president. Another is a former president of the National Association of Student Councils. Many others are active in student government or organizations, such as the recently founded Roosevelt Institution (named after Teddy and Franklin), which bills itself as “The Nation’s First Student Think Tank” and was recently attacked in The Nation for -- I am not making this up -- appearing to favor intellectual work over protest.
How did Unity08 find these students? Bailey and Jordan and Rafshoon had met some of them through their travels over the years, Kinkennon told me -- for example, Bailey had spoken at the launch of the Roosevelt Institution’s policy journal, Roosevelt Review -- and then those students recruited their best contacts to the Founders Council. . . .
Political operatives with a difference
The fourth thing you’ll notice about the Founders Council may be the most significant of all. At least seven of them (23%) are or were prominent political consultants or operatives.
That makes Unity08 dramatically different from most political organizations, which tend to be long on activists and / or policy analysts but nearly devoid of people who actually know how to raise large amounts of money or communicate successfully with the general public or dicker with the FEC.
But they are not your ordinary political operatives. They’re all special in some way -- unusually creative or adventurous or quirky in some way that makes them perfectly suited for this creative-centrist megaproject. For example:
-- Bailey not only worked for Ford, he worked as media consultant for former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, arguably the most sensible Republican Presidential candidate in a generation;
-- Jordan not only worked for Carter, he worked for independent Presidential candidate Ross Perot before realizing how unsuited Perot was for political office. In addition, Jordan is a three-time cancer survivor and has written a genuinely moving book about his experiences, No Such Thing as a Bad Day (2000);
-- Rafshoon left the world of media advising to become a major film and television producer;
-- Roger Craver is CEO of the largest Democratic communications and fundraising operation on the East Coast, Craver Mathews Smith & Co.; the ACLU, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Greenpeace, and National Organization for Women are some of his long-time clients. But he had the temerity to openly raise money for Republican John Anderson’s independent Presidential bid in 1980, and he had the generosity to tutor me in direct mail, gratis, in 1983-84, so I could take my fledgling “post-liberal, post-socialist” newsletter, New Options, and turn it into what eventually became the second largest independent political newsletter in the U.S.;
-- Jim Jonas, CEO of Unity08, and founder of Peak Creative Media, has not only produced effective media for innumerable mainstream Republican candidates and corporate clients, but he served as “executive producer” for Lamar Alexander’s early Presidential organizing efforts (against Dole) from 1993-95;
-- Nicco Mele, now a prominent Internet strategist and consultant, was Howard Dean’s Presidential campaign webmaster in 2003-04 -- in effect, he and Joe Trippi brought the whole “netroots” movement into the mainstream;
-- Tom Collier is not on the Founders Council, but he’s the lawyer who’ll be dealing with Federal Elections Commission and ballot access issues. He is a partner at Steptoe & Johnson, one of Washington DC’s largest law firms. But his principal area of practice is Alternative Dispute Resolution (and he got into that field long before it became fashionable), and he was chief of staff for Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt -- one of Clinton’s genuine good guys -- from 1993-95.
I do wish there were at least a couple of creative-centrist policy wonks on the Founders Council. Mark Gerzon at Mediators Foundation, Ted Halstead at New America Foundation, Maya MacGuineas at Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, and Matthew Miller at Center for American Progress jump immediately to mind -- and two of them are under 40! Their presence would reassure me that Unity08 won’t get so caught up in the nuts and bolts of campaigning that it will neglect to project a distinct message, at once pragmatic and visionary.
Winning isn’t the only thing -- without carefully conceived public policies, winning can be empty, as we’ve seen more than once in our lifetimes.
Have we ever needed anything so much?
Now that we know how competent and experienced and wonderful some of these Founders are, we can take their brave words seriously.
And the first thing they want to tell us is that we need Unity08 -- madly.
“The American people know that the current system is broken and that the time is short to fix it,” says Unity08’s official website.
A Unity Ticket, win or lose, would bring “new ideas” and “new integrity” to the political process, long-time Republican consultant Doug Bailey says in Kinkennon’s press release.
We are ready for a “transformational moment” in politics, Kinkennon told me, a moment in which we “begin to see politics differently.”
Hamilton Jordan’s public words are usually pretty buttoned-down. But he spoke to the Centrist Coalition by speakerphone three weeks before Unity08 was announced (in a call arranged by John Avlon, btw, recently named communications director of Rudy Giuliani’s political action committee), and here’s how CC member Annie Gottlieb, aka AmbivaBlog, remembers it: “[Jordan was] as critical of the Democrats as of the Republicans, and expressed a sense of alarm and urgency about the country -- said at this rate within a short generation we’ll be a second-rate power, not only politically and economically but scientifically.”
People who sat in on Unity08’s May 30 conference call remember Jordan lamenting that, if we’d only had a way to put Colin Powell on the ballot in the year 2000, the last six years might have dramatically different.
An objective take on the American public
As has been done at tiresome length by political operatives over the years, the good folks at Unity08 unveiled the results of a poll along with their press release -- this one conducted by the prestigious Princeton Survey Research Associates. Its findings were anything but tiresome.
It found that a stunning 85% of Americans agree that the country “has become so polarized between Democrats and Republicans that Washington can’t seem to make progress solving the nation’s problems.”
It also found that 63% of Americans are interested in a ticket that would feature a prominent Republican and a prominent Democrat.
“Maximum” and “minimum” goals
Like one of those old European socialist political documents, Unity08’s press release proffers maximum, intermediate, and minimum goals.
The maximum goal is, of course, the election of a Unity Ticket to the White House in 2008. Unity08 isn’t gearing up for moral victories or spoiler activities, Jim Jonas allegedly said at the May 30 conference call. “It would be a huge mistake to underestimate [us].”
Intermediate goal is having the American people choose that ticket online by means of the first-ever “virtual convention” of millions of qualified U.S. voters. Columnist Margaret Carlson, among others, is intrigued by a system that would allow millions of online voters to have at least as much say in whom we choose for President as “the lucky few residing in Iowa or New Hampshire.”
Minimum goal is pressuring the major parties to adopt Unity08’s nominations process and / or devotion to seriously addressing real political issues (as distinct from wedge issues). Founders Council member James Strock, former California EPA Secretary (and author of Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership), pointedly reminded the May 30 conference call that although TR ran as a Bull Moose party candidate in 1912 against Wilson and Taft and lost, both parties later adopted many of TR’s ideas.
Micah Sifry, a former editor at The Nation, wonders whether even the maximum goal above -- election of a Unity Ticket -- would be enough to “fire up voters.” (“Their ticket will look like a horse designed by a committee, only with two heads,” he gripes.) We can expect that that will be the far left’s position on Unity08, and the answer, for me, is obvious: What could be MORE galvanizing? Running a hyper-partisan know-it-all like Ralph Nader? If we can’t get Americans talking to each other and learning from each other, we can kiss this country goodbye.
Laying the blame
Unity08’s “official” position is that we’re all at fault for the mess we’re in. According to its website, “Both parties and all of us who have been active in them share responsibility for the current political morass.”
However, a closer look at Unity08’s statements and its Founders’ statements reveals that the biggest culprit by far is said to be the two party system.
For example, both parties are said to be “polarizing” America by pandering to their bases. The Unity08 website makes this point in thunder when it says, “Recent Presidential elections . . . have not been focused on the middle but on the turnout of each party’s special interest groups -- with each party’s ‘base’ representing barely 10% of the American people.
“We believe that, while the leaders of both major parties are well intentioned people, they are trapped in a flawed system -- and that the two major parties are [therefore no longer] relevant to the issues and challenges of the 21st century.”
That analysis of our situation should already be familiar to Radical Middle readers. It is the analysis of John Avlon in his many columns, which we’ve carried HERE, and in his book Independent Nation (2004), discussed HERE; and it is the analysis of Harvard political scientist David C. King, who two years ago was adventurous enough to moderate a panel consisting of Avlon, Jesse Ventura, and me, and who wrote as far back as 1997, “Both political parties have been growing more extreme . . . they are increasingly distant in their policies from what the average voter would like.”
Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan speechwriter, disputes that analysis. She thinks that in most ways the parties are indistinguishable, and that the real polarization is between the parties on the one hand, and the people on the other. In a recent column in the Wall Street Journal she wrote, “On the ground in America, people worry terribly . . . about endless, weird, gushing government spending. But in Washington, those in power -- Republicans and Democrats -- stand arm in arm as they spend and spend. (Part of the reason is that they think they can buy off your unhappiness one way or another. After all, it’s worked in the past. . . .)"
I am closer to Noonan and my ex-friends on the far left on this issue than I am to Unity08, Avlon, or Prof. King. But in the end, it does not matter whose analysis is “correct,” since both analyses lead to the same place. The two party system as we know it today needs to be broken up or radically reformed -- and Unity08 offers the best vehicle we have now for doing that.
How specific should the agenda be?
One of the most delicate questions any political organization faces is how specific its political agenda (aka “program,” aka “platform”) should be. Too specific and you alienate potential supporters. Too general and you attract no one but opportunists.
Unity08’s initial solution to this dilemma has been to divide issues into two categories -- “Crucial” and “Important” -- and to insist that the organization focus 100% of its attention on the former.
“In our opinion,” Unity’s website declares, “Crucial Issues include
“By contrast, we consider gun control, abortion and gay marriage Important Issues, worthy of discussion and debate in a free society, but not issues that should dominate or even crowd our national agenda.”
That seems fine -- for now. But some in Unity08 apparently want things to go no further. According to an official Unity08 Blog posting (May 31), “Some experienced bloggers expect / want Unity08 to arrive with a specific platform position on every issue. . . . We will have an agenda, not a platform. Our agenda is the list of issues that the public feels are crucial that Washington is not addressing.”
At the same time, though, the Unity08 web team, in a post dated May 28, wants viewers to use its website to “discuss, debate and decide the crucial issues.” Why should anyone devote their time to this if the decisions reached will never make it into a Unity08 policy document?
When I asked publicist Shane Kinkennon to clarify this, he told me unambiguously that “we will not be scripting positions” for our Presidential nominees. It will be enough to require them to seriously address the Crucial Issues that Unity08 has identified and will continue to identify.
If Unity08 seriously hopes to involve millions of Americans in its processes, though, it may have to give a little on this point. People are going to feel used if they devote hours to debating issues on the Unity website, only to discover that no one at Unity is even sifting through their offerings for usable insights.
When I was a Green activist in the 1980s, I helped create the “Ten Key Values” statement, the Greens’ founding document. It consisted almost entirely of pointed political questions arranged under 10 broad headings (“Personal and Social Responsibility,” “Future Focus,” etc.). Perhaps some such values-oriented document, brimming with open-ended questions rather than closed-minded answers, and open to carefully-chosen input from Unity08’s web viewers, would serve the organization well in the run-up to 2008.
Where the rubber hits the road
Although it’s fun issuing press releases and arguing over analyses and platforms ad infinitum (as I know all too well from my New World Alliance days), a political organization succeeds only by mapping out a path to power and influence and following that path.
Not surprisingly, the political consultants, entrepreneurs, activists, and student leaders on the Unity08 Founders Council have already limned such a path.
The website “will be the focal point” of the organization’s recruitment and fund-raising efforts, says Kinkennon. Meantime, everything will be building toward the online nominating convention in June 2008.
Why that date? According to a Unity08 document made available to Chris Cillizza of Washingtonpost.com’s Politics Blog, “That will be after the two parties are likely to have decided in their primaries who their nominees will be, so the Unity08 [online] convention delegates would then be able to consider who is best to run against them.”
Anyone -- you too -- can be an online convention delegate, so long as you’re registered on the Unity08 website and registered to vote in your state. Unity08 claims that “voting could be both secure and easy. And we are working to maximize both the public’s and the media’s confidence in the systems that would be used.” With Nicco Mele (Howard Dean’s former webmaster) on the Founders Council, that’s not hot air.
Online convention delegates will not vote for President and Vice President separately, but for combined tickets. (Each candidate for President will choose their Vice Presidential candidate before the balloting.) That way at least one Democrat and one Republican will be on each ticket. Alternately, Independents can run for the nomination if they run with a “unity team” representing both major parties.
Could you or I run for the nomination? Margaret Carlson had the moxey to ask Founders Council member and former Maine Gov. Angus King whether she could run, and King replied, “There will be some minimum threshold” for legitimate candidates. But he apparently said no more.
The online convention could draft someone without their running for the nomination. But at the moment, Unity08 says it won’t recognize efforts “on behalf of someone who definitively rules out running even if they were to be nominated.”
Unity anticipates that online balloting would continue until a ticket receives at least 50% of the vote cast. That harks back to the political conventions of long ago, when winning nominees often had to go through many vote counts. (Note to Unity08 organizers: Why not institute Instant Runoff Voting, which would allow voters to rank nominees in order or preference and wouldn’t require voters to continue voting again and again? Isn’t part of your mission to help us create a new and better political process, not take us “back to the future”?)
As for getting the nominated ticket onto the ballot in all 50 states (requirement #1 for a credible national campaign), “the millions of [online] convention delegates would be organized to get that job done [offline], state by state.” Meanwhile, top-tier attorney Thomas Collier, profiled above, is laying the groundwork for all that.
What hath they wrought?
The Unity08 game plan seems plausible to me -- the more so since the key players are deeply experienced, vastly well-connected, and fantastically motivated. And, not least, they seem open to course corrections. “It is all evolving as we go along,” Kinkennon told me jauntily.
Still, you have to wonder if they are fully aware of what they are unleashing.
It is one thing for Deaniacs to get the wind taken out of their sails when their candidate does poorly in Iowa.
But suppose 10 to 20 million people vote to nominate a ticket that the two parties manage to keep off the ballot in crucial states. Suppose the parties refuse to let such nominees take part in the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates.
Would chaos ensue? Could the inevitable fury be harnessed to constructive ends -- say, to bringing about a dramatic political transformation? And what form would that transformation take?
Or, if the fury leads nowhere, is the alienation (not just disappointment or garden-variety paranoia) of a huge portion of the American electorate something we could endure as a nation?
Unity08’s game plan is not just ambitious and clever. It is a gamble, with very high stakes.
But with the two political parties spending the next generation into oblivion, and persistently refusing to honestly address our most pressing domestic and global issues -- I say it is a gamble worth taking.
The Unity08 Website and National Office can be reached at P.O. Box 13331, Denver CO 80201, 1-877-UNITY08, emails to be sent via HERE. (Unity08 told a Denver Post reporter that it chose Colorado as its headquarters because it’s full of moderate voters and is considered to be a classic “swing” state. Jim Jonas, CEO of Unity08 and founder of Peak Creative Media, lives in Denver, as does Founders Council member David Maney, managing partner of a telecommunications consulting company.)
For the original Unity08 press release, see Shane Kinkennon, “New Organization Offers Voters an Answer to Partisan Paralysis, Seeks to Elect Bipartisan ‘Unity Ticket’ to White House,” Unity08 News Room (30 May 2006), 703-855-9576, firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a taste of the May 30 Unity08 conference call to selected reporters, bloggers, and political consultants, see Samuel Smith, “Notes from May 30 Unity08 Conference Call,” Lullaby Pit (30 May 2006).
For some newspaper articles from the first days after the press release / conference call, see Karen Crummy, “‘08 Vote to Have a Third Ticket,” Denver Post (orig. 31 May 2006); Peggy Noonan, “Third Time,” Wall Street Journal (1 June 2006); and Jim VandeHei, “From the Internet to the White House,” Washington Post (31 May 2006).
For some web articles from the first days after the press release / conference call, see Margaret Carlson, “How to Top ‘American Idol’ in Votes in 2008,” Bloomberg.com (1 June 2006); Chris Cillizza, “2008: Time Ripe for Third Party Ticket?,” The Fix: Washingtonpost.com's Politics Blog (30 May 2006); and Micah Sifry, “Bipartisan Third-Party Bid: Hype or Hope?,” Micah L. Sifry blog (30 May 2006).
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