"Things fall apart; the center cannot hold," William Butler Yeats wrote. But that was in 1919, before the Internet.
Nearly a century later, the list of unsolved problems keeps growing—the war in Iraq, illegal immigration, the deficit, gas prices. What people see in Washington is posturing and bickering. Last year the Terri Schiavo story made Congress look ridiculous. This year it's the $100 gas rebate.
Americans have lost confidence in President Bush, whose job-approval ratings are hovering in the low 30s. And the Republicans in Congress? The public gave them 33 percent approval in last month's ABC News/ Washington Post poll. What about the opposition? Democrats in Congress earned only slightly higher scores (39 percent of respondents approved, 58 percent disapproved).
Enter Unity08.com. A new party? Not quite. It's an Internet-based movement aimed at electing a bipartisan ticket in 2008—a candidate for president from one party and a running mate from the other party. According to spokesman Angus King, "The whole idea is to take all the votes that would have gone to the other parties and win the election. We're not in this as spoilers."
King actually did it. He got elected governor of Maine as an independent—twice (in 1994 and 1998). "The people just wanted the problems solved, and that was the approach I took," he said in a recent interview. Voters have come to see politics as the enemy of problem-solving. In the popular view, Congress can't pass immigration reform or do anything about the deficit or gas prices because politics gets in the way. King said, "The general public stands back and looks at all the fighting and negative ads and says, 'Who are these people and why are they doing this?' "
Sound familiar? The complaints sound like those from Ross Perot back in 1992. "In Washington, you have a combination of theater, images, magic acts, and illusions," Perot said that year. The market for an independent presidential candidate is greater now than at any time since 1992, when Perot got nearly 20 percent of the vote. In last month's CNN poll, 31 percent of Americans said they would consider voting for an independent candidate for president. Just like in 1992, voters are angry at the government and don't have a lot of confidence in the opposition.
You need three things to run an independent campaign for the White House: money, an issue, and a candidate. Perot had a lot of money. Where will Unity08 get the money to run a presidential campaign? That's where the Internet comes in. "What we learned in the last election cycle is that a lot of money can be raised from a lot of people in a hurry using that medium," King said.
Unity08 contenders will also campaign on the Internet. Voters will choose the ticket by voting online. But what about the problem that the Internet seems to be dominated by shrill voices from the Right and the Left? King's response: "There are 85 million people who are regular users of the Internet. We don't think they can all be extremists."
The people behind Unity08 are political operatives from an earlier era. The group's "Founder's Council"—still in formation—includes Republican Doug Bailey, who worked for President Ford (and later founded The Hotline) and Democrats Hamilton Jordan and Gerald Rafshoon, who worked for President Carter, as well as the independent King and a lot of young people who had given up on politics.
Does Unity08 have an issue? "Today," King said, "the salient issue, in my view, is competitiveness and how do we maintain our standard of living and quit loading debt onto our kids." Problems that are not being solved. Sounds a lot like Perot. "I don't deny there's an echo of Ross Perot here," King said, "because he was right."
A presidential campaign is a horse race. Does Unity08 have a horse—a candidate for president whom voters can rally behind? "The horse is hopefully coming to us," King said. "We are not starting with a horse." Unity08 is relying on the fact that America is an entrepreneurial society. If there's a market—in this case, for a new kind of political voice—there's bound to be a product.