A New Open-Source Politics
Just as Linux lets users design their own operating systems, so 'netroots' politicos may redesign our nominating system
Bob Schieffer of CBS news made a good point on "The Charlie Rose Show" last week. He said that successful presidents have all skillfully exploited the dominant medium of their times. The Founders were eloquent writers in the age of pamphleteering. Franklin D. Roosevelt restored hope in 1933 by mastering radio. And John F. Kennedy was the first president elected because of his understanding of television.
Will 2008 bring the first Internet president? Last time, Howard Dean and later John Kerry showed that the whole idea of "early money" is now obsolete in presidential politics. The Internet lets candidates who catch fire raise millions in small donations practically overnight. That's why all the talk of Hillary Clinton's "war chest" making her the front runner for 2008 is the most hackneyed punditry around. Money from wealthy donors remains the essential ingredient in most state and local campaigns, but "free media" shapes the outcome of presidential races, and the Internet is the freest media of all.
No one knows exactly where technology is taking politics, but we're beginning to see some clues. For starters, the longtime stranglehold of media consultants may be over. In 2004, Errol Morris, the director of "The Thin Blue Line" and "The Fog of War," on his own initiative made several brilliant anti-Bush ads (they featured lifelong Republicans explaining why they were voting for Kerry). Not only did Kerry not air the ads, he told me recently he never even knew they existed. In 2008, any presidential candidate with half a brain will let a thousand ad ideas bloom (or stream) online and televise only those that are popular downloads. Deferring to "the wisdom of crowds" will be cheaper and more effective.
Open-source politics has its hazards, starting with the fact that most people over 35 will need some help with the concept. But just as Linux lets tech-savvy users avoid Microsoft and design their own operating systems, so "netroots" political organizers may succeed in redesigning our current nominating system. But there probably won't be much that's organized about it. By definition, the Internet strips big shots of their control of the process, which is a good thing. Politics is at its most invigorating when it's cacophonous and chaotic.
To begin busting up the dumb system we have for selecting presidents, a bipartisan group will open shop this week at Unity08.com. This Internet-based third party is spearheaded by three veterans of the antique 1976 campaign: Democrats Hamilton Jordan and Gerald Rafshoon helped get Jimmy Carter elected; Republican Doug Bailey did media for Gerald Ford before launching the political TIP SHEET Hotline. They are joined by the independent former governor of Maine, Angus King, and a collection of idealistic young people who are also tired of a nominating process that pulls the major party candidates to the extremes. Their hope: to get even a fraction of the 50 million who voted for the next American Idol to nominate a third-party candidate for president online and use this new army to get him or her on the ballot in all 50 states. The idea is to go viral--or die. "The worst thing that could happen would be for a bunch of old white guys like us to run this," Jordan says.
The Unity08 plan is for an online third-party convention in mid-2008, following the early primaries. Any registered voter could be a delegate; their identities would be confirmed by cross-referencing with voter registration rolls (which would also prevent people from casting more than one ballot). That would likely include a much larger number than the few thousand primary voters who all but nominate the major party candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire. This virtual process will vote on a centrist platform and nominate a bipartisan ticket. The idea is that even if the third-party nominee didn't win, he would wield serious power in the '08 election, which will likely be close.