Is Unity '08 Ready For Prime Time?

Flanked by his security, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg arrives at Manhattan State Supreme court for jury duty, Monday, Aug. 6, 2007, in New York.
AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano
This column was written by Britt Peterson.

Give me back the marmalade," Gerald Rafshoon snaps. His breakfast-table companion, Douglas Bailey, has been taking a bit too much time smearing his English muffin. "See - those Republicans; you give them something, they hold onto it." It continues like this all morning. Rafshoon, a former media adviser to Jimmy Carter, and Bailey, a former media adviser to Gerald Ford, trade barbs about partisan stereotypes and which old party star is more ancient. But their joshing comes with a point. As two-thirds of the founders of Unity '08, a nascent third-party attempt that intends to nominate a bipartisan ticket in '08, they're trying to prove that Democrats and Republicans working together will prove more popular than either side.

If that sounds a little simplistic - particularly in the era of George W. Bush and Karl Rove - well, it is. "Texas is red, New York is blue, Unity '08 is for me and for you!" Rafshoon sings at one point. Breakfasting with Rafshoon and Bailey is a bit like a private performance from Lucy and Desi - an hour of the Jerry and Doug Show, jokey, cordial, and always staged. The forced banter points to exactly what is wrong with their brainchild: Their bipartisanship is a façade, and a fragile one at that.

Along with Hamilton Jordan, Carter's chief of staff, Rafshoon and Bailey, fed up with polarized, two-party politics, formed Unity '08 in October 2005 to create a golden era of bipartisan cooperation and clean electioneering - an era which, not coincidently, bears a certain resemblance to a rose-tinted view of Jordan, Rafshoon, and Bailey's heyday. "Doug and I faced each other in 1976," Rafshoon explains. "We each spent $21 million. His idea of negative campaigning was to say that Carter was a one-term Georgia governor who didn't know his way around Washington, which was true; my idea of negative campaigning was to say that Gerald Ford was a hard-hearted Republican, which was true. It was civil in those days."

This nostalgia, combined with the genuine frustration many Americans do feel with partisan politics - the Unity '08 Web site proclaims that 82 percent of Americans think Washington is too polarized to function - has sparked centrist-chic mini-buzz around Unity '08. David Broder has written positive editorials about the group. Sam Waterston, that other actor from "Law & Order," has done the circuit of TV talk shows to promote it. ("I'm just the cheerleader here," Waterston told Chris Matthews on "Hardball" in July.) Billionaire New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's well-publicized defection from the Republican Party in June added fuel to the fire: Though Bloomberg's spokesman, Stu Loeser, told me the mayor was definitely not running for president in 2008, his flirtations have raised the possibility that an astronomically well-capitalized candidate could run on the Unity '08 ticket. Unity '08 won't discuss candidates, but the day after Bloomberg registered as an Independent, the "news" rubric on the Unity '08 homepage was entirely filled with links to stories about it.

Most recently, former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he has been talking to Unity '08 about a possible run. "My own thinking is, it may be a time for the country to say, 'Time out. The two-party system has served us well, historically, but it's not serving us now,'" Nunn said. Nunn also said he had spoken with Bloomberg about a presidential run. (Bailey told me that Unity '08 can't comment on the potential candidates they brief, but he called Nunn a "great public servant" and said that, along with the other 50 or so candidates whom they have spoken with, Nunn is "symbolic of a different kind of politics than what is seen today." Loeser wouldn't comment on the mayor's private conversations.)