By Ben Goddard - 06/22/06 12:00 AM EDT
In her insightful book Fight Club Politics, Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin traces the extreme polarization of modern politics in the House of Representatives.
She argues that with sophisticated gerrymandering politicians have chosen their voters to the degree that voters are no longer choosing their representatives in competitive races. Lawmakers are less accountable to the public than they are to party leaders and the narrow partisan base that gets them through their first primary election.
Once in office there is little incentive to seek consensus or focus on the real needs of constituents. Thus the bitter, partisan, poisoned atmosphere that pervades Washington.
Near the end of her book, she quotes former Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.) as saying of the Congress, “There is no institutional support for restoring comity and respect and order. … It’s going to take some cataclysmic voter reaction.”
If one listens carefully early rumblings of just such an event are building across America. Several weeks ago I wrote of research showing that a mere 16 percent of Americans had confidence in the Congress. The tone of political discourse, evidenced by the useless posturing of both parties over nonbinding resolutions on the war in Iraq and nonstarter gay-marriage bans, has destroyed confidence not just in Congress but in the leadership of both major political parties.
Over dinner a few nights ago, Democrat pollster Peter Hart suggested to a small group that voter discontent extends well beyond the Congress. Recent polling by Hart and his Republican counterpart Bill McInturff found no more than 35 percent of voters giving either political party favorable marks.
Hart says that in his forty years of polling this is the first time he has ever seen both parties held in such low esteem. Usually when Democrats are down Republicans are up, and vice versa. Not this year.
The attitude of voters is “a pox on both their houses.” That is a message that should greatly concern the leaders of both parties. It is also an early sign that Tauzin’s “cataclysmic voter reaction” may well be developing.
I have also spent 40 years involved in electoral politics. (I started out as a child.) I have never seen the sort of exhausted frustration with our nation’s political leadership that I witness today. Friends and colleagues who have been lifelong political activists seem to dread the midterm elections. Republicans fear they’ll lose control. Democrats fear their party will somehow find a way to blow an election they shouldn’t lose. And when talk turns to the 2008 presidential race, both sides are singing the old song “Is That All There Is?”
A group of seasoned political practitioners and a handful of college students may have come up with something more. Doug Bailey, a Republican consultant and former adviser to President Gerald Ford; Hamilton Jordan and Gerald Rafshoon, two architects of President Jimmy Carter’s 1976 victory; former independent Gov. Angus King of Maine; and college students from Yale and the University of North Carolina have launched Unity08, an online movement to draft an independent ticket for the presidency in 2008. They describe themselves as “a group of citizens concerned that the wheels have come off our political system” — a position with which millions of Americans would agree.
Though failed third-party or independent efforts litter the historic battlefield of American politics, it is just possible that this is the right movement at the right time. Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan believes “a big breakup’s coming.” She opines that “we’ll someday look back on this era as the time when a shift began.” Alan Greenspan has predicted there will be a third-party challenger for president in 2008 or 2012. Tom Brokaw raised that possibility in a recent column. Democrat Peter Hart suggests an independent candidate could poll well into double digits in the next election.
Voters are quite clearly not getting the government they want from the two major parties. They are faced with false choices, consultant-packaged candidates and campaigns pitched to narrow constituencies. The founders of Unity08 believe voters have had enough of such nonsense, and I believe they may be right.
The genius of their plan is that it is pitched to the center, to the voters who once determined the direction of the nation. There are clear signs those voters want to take charge again.
Unity08’s online campaign just may be the medium to deliver that message to both established parties and rewrite political history in the process.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.