Can Campaign '08 Be Saved?

Presidential candidate (L-R) Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), Presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and her husband, former president Bill Clinton march with a crowd to the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 1965 "Bloody Sunday" Voting Rights march March 4, 2007 in Selma, Alabama. Getty Images

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.


In our last episode, your narrator declared that our villain – the corrupt and petty party duopoly that controls American politics – has become so dysfunctional that reform is not enough. It needs rehab. It needs detox.

You were promised a 12-step solution: it's called Unity08. Unity08 is basically a gang of smart, hopeful politicians and recovering consultants, young people and business types who want to run a third party candidate in 2008 who will be selected entirely by delegates to Internet convention, through online voting. The president and vice president must either be from different parties or independents. (If you want all the details, read an earlier column of mine or go to the Unity08 site.)

The E-Doors to Unity08 have been open for about a month and so far about 42,000 people have signed up to become delegates. There's been no real marketing and very little of what pols call "free media" – columns like this one. The viral moment has not come yet for Unity08, but I expect it will.

Now according to the Group Think that regulates smart and cunning political talk under the evil party duopoly, third parties in any incarnation are farcical pipe dreams.

Ballot access laws in the 50 states are hopelessly stacked against third parties. Big money will never flow to third parties and federal campaign finance laws tilt to the duopoly. The media treats third parties as comic relief. They usually aren't allowed in debates. Fine, maybe that gutsy, bold, hard-boiled analysis is right and will be forever and ever.

But I doubt it. A system that takes two years to hold an election when every other industrial democracy can do it in about a month is vulnerable.

And even in this endless process, only about three or four percent of voters will even get to cast meaningful votes in nominating party candidates (people in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and maybe a couple other states).

The campaign is infinite, irritating and non-participatory. It shackles government to the paranoia and machinations of "strategists" and hungry candidates. It will cost a billion. Besides that, it's super.

Also, remember that H. Ross Perot, a man who displayed weirdness to the point of craziness, captured 20 percent of the vote in 1992 against a sitting president with the best resume in modern politics and a politician so gifted on the trail he was nicknamed The Natural. He was even ahead in some summertime polls. Imagine how well a dashing and stable rich guy might have done.

This cycle is even more favorable for an anomaly. By most any metrics you could pick, American voters are repulsed by "the system." War, terrorism and the aging of the precious Baby Boomers are couple factors that have made the political climate moodier than '92. "The country isn't just in trouble, it knows it's in trouble," says Doug Bailey, one of key movers in Unity08.

But duopoly elite doesn't seem to have caught on: maybe the candidates have, but the rank and file and the operatives haven't. Morris Fiorina, the Stanford political scientist who proved (and I mean proved) that the American public is not polarized and fighting a culture war even though the polite elite is, sent out a note to his friends touting Unity08.

Further, this will be the longest campaign in history and already the candidates – a pretty good and interesting field – are devouring each other. Or maybe it's better to say that they are being devoured by the process and the posses, the parasitic forces that flourish in a billion dollar, two-year escapade that is essentially a for-profit business. I can't imagine the field looking very attractive in 12 months or 16 months when Unity08 hits its stride. Any voters who are still paying attention will have "blame-game fatigue," gaff-itis and buyer's remore, in Bailey's view.

Maybe the anomaly, the historic happening, of 2008 will be Barack Obama. Maybe it will be the first female president. Probably there will be no anomaly.

But what I wish for is something that cracks the cuckoo bubble of American campaigns. I flat out do not believe that can happen within the two-party system. So Unity08 deserves attention, support and enduring the wisecracks of the smart crowd. I don't see much choice.

Unity08 also deserves a big-time candidate. And that's the rub, perhaps a $250 million rub.

My jaded side (it's all of me, actually) says an independent candidate will have to fund most of the race. That is why I'm still pushing New York Michael Bloomberg, who is independent, essentially unpartisan, quirky, competent and insanely well-qualified. And he's richer than God. Again, the smart crowd has concluded there is absolutely no way Bloomberg will run in 2008 and maybe he has said as much. I think life is unpredictable and things happen.

Nebraska's Chuck Hagel has also been saying nice things about Unity08 lately too. Perhaps it's just mischief, I don't know. I also don't know if any other well seasoned and adequately spicy wannabes have been whispering to the guys running Unity08. But I am reasonably sure some are watching carefully.

More important, I hope that infamous "silent majority" is watching. And clicking.



Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

E-mail questions, comments, complaints, arguments and ideas to
Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones, sometimes in edited form.

By Dick Meyer
  • Francie Grace

Comments