Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Center Fire?

My initial intention was to write this article as an "exclusive" for Free Market News Network, but it's one of those "time is of the essence/strike while the iron is hot" things -- definitely blogstuff, although FMNN is, as always, welcome to it on their own timelime.

In brief: I just hung up after participating in the Unity08 "blogger conference call." Unity08 is a group possessed, at this time, of three real assets: an agenda, the support of some reasonably well-known political figures for that agenda, and the knowledge that they need to make huge inroads in two places (on the Internet and on campus) in order to implement their agenda.

You can get the long version of that agenda at their web site, but here's the short version:

They're centrists. They're concerned about the increasing polarization of partisan American politics, and they want to nominate -- through an online process open to every American voter rather than through the front-loaded caucus and primary system -- a presidential ticket which will appeal the the American "moderate/independent" voter.

My big question for Unity08 (unasked on the conference call -- I only asked one question, and wouldn't have had to ask that one if I'd done better homework) is this:

How do you set the "center" on fire, politically speaking?

A plurality of Americans describe themselves as "centrists," "moderates" or just "independents" -- but so far as I can tell, they've never historically hung together as a bloc at the polls. I'm not sure that they can.

The thing about the center is that it doesn't really exist as such. As you zoom in on it, it turns out to be composed of its own mini-polarizations. Some centrists "lean right," Some "lean left," on an issue-by-issue basis, with different issues being important to different people. The "center" isn't a bloc -- it's a bloc of blocs.

The "major party" path to victory subsists in getting as many of those mini-blocs of leaners to lean far enough that they fall right into Democratic or Republican arms. Winning is a matter of keeping a party's base solid, and then adding little "centrist" mini-blocs to it like charms on a bracelet. And there is no identifiable "centrist base." There's no list of three or five issues that a supermajority of "centrists" are going to coalesce on and that can't be pulled out from under a "centrist" candidate by a blazing ideologue who hits the right note on them. At least that's how I see it.

Naturally, the Big Names associated with Unity08 see it differently -- and who can blame them?

- Hamilton Jordan served as President Jimmy Carter's chief of staff

- Doug Bailey worked as a media consultant for President Gerald Ford

- Former Governor of Maine Angus King was elected twice as an independent, the second time by a crushing majority

So -- we've got people who have worked in what were arguably moderate/centrist White Houses, and who managed to beat Republicans and Democrats in statewide races on a moderate/centrist platform. The question is whether their results are reproducible. And you know, they just may be, if the right names sign on.

That brings up the second big question:

What figures of political stature are going to be willing to walk away from a major party to seek, receive and run on the Unity08 nomination? At the presidential level of major party politics, that's definitely a bridge-burning, Rubicon-crossing act, from which more than one prospective candidate has quailed at the moment of truth.

A McCain-Feingold Unity08 ticket (for example) might win the 2008 presidential election ... but if not, we wouldn't see McCain and Feingold's parties welcoming them back. Their careers as serving public officials would probably be over. Sure, there would be book deals, speaking gigs, maybe a commentator slot on the talking head circuit, but there would be no going back to The Way Things Were.

I'm not going to say that Unity08 is doomed to failure -- but they've picked a tough row to hoe, and I don't think I'm speaking from ideological viewpoint in saying so (or saying anything that they won't admit themselves).

Ideologically, I consider myself a moderate, but I don't think I'm the kind of moderate Unity08 (or its prospective voter base) has in mind. Still, I wish Unity08 the best, because if they can mobilize their vaunted "center" and prevail, ideologues like myself are going to have some huge shattered polar-partisan bases to recruit from.

Side note: For some reason, most of the call participants who weren't directly affiliated with Unity08 seemed to be libertarian bloggers. I don't know if this was an intentional "ambush" of some type or not; I also don't know if perhaps the libertarians were just more willing to jump in with questions. I got my "invitation" indirectly, but have no reason to believe that it was part of a plot to "libertarianize" the event (it was forwarded to me FYI, with no implication that it was an "exclusive" event). I certainly made a point of behaving respectably/respectfully, as did the other libertarians who popped up with questions and comments.

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