Imagine a presidential debate this October with three lecterns on the stage. Standing between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is a third national candidate, maybe polling neck and neck with his two opponents. He’s a respectably moderate member of one of the major parties, like Evan Bayh or Jon Huntsman.
Now imagine moderator Jim Lehrer asking each of the three how he plans to rein in the massive federal budget deficit. Obama argues that the rich need to pay their fair share and defense spending must shrink. Romney responds that it’s domestic spending that needs cutting, and taxes should stay low to spur the sluggish economy. Then, Lehrer turns to the man in the middle.
“There they go again,” our mystery candidate quips. “The same politics as usual. Is it any wonder Washington can’t get things done?” Thomas Friedman and Joe Scarborough revel in the moment.
The solution to the deficit crisis, the candidate says, is—well, it’s one that gets beyond the tired stereotypes of the two parties. It’s one that requires shared sacrifice and common commitment. And so on and so forth. Are you excited that such a fashionably bipartisan argument could be represented on the stage? If so, you’ll like Americans Elect, a nonpartisan, nonprofit corporation whose purpose is to nominate online an alternative presidential candidate who will break through partisan boundaries in addressing the tough questions of the day.
At a time of widespread dissatisfaction with Congress and the White House, the folks at Americans Elect see an opening for a popularly nominated presidential candidate. As Kahlil Byrd, the organization’s chief executive officer, recently told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, “The issues and the ideas that will take the country to a better place are pretty obvious to the American people. They don’t seem to be obvious in the governing that we have in Washington.”
Founder Peter Ackerman, a wealthy investor who also started the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and is on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations, heads up Americans Elect and has helped fund it. Ackerman’s son Elliot is the group’s chief operating officer. The younger Ackerman, who served as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan, tells me Americans Elect presents a major opportunity to break the “anticompetitive duopoly” of American politics.
Here’s how the nominating process works: Any registered voter can sign up on the Americans Elect website to become an official delegate. From there, delegates can express policy preferences, learn more about “the issues,” and help draft and garner support for candidates. (The candidate with the most online support so far? Ron Paul.)
In June, the delegates will vote in an online nominating convention to choose the candidate from a winnowed field of six, all of whom will have agreed to run if nominated. The winner will be expected to select a running mate from the opposite side of the ideological spectrum and will have his name placed on the Americans Elect ballot line in November.
Americans Elect is not a political party, they insist, and after the nomination, the candidate will be on his own to raise money and campaign. All that’s promised is ballot access, which is as valuable as cash to a non-major-party candidate. As a result of the group’s impressive national petition drive, which has gathered more than 2.5 million signatures, the candidate will almost certainly be on the ballot in all 50 states.
So what will the people’s candidate be like? Elliot Ackerman says they have no “ideal” person in mind but hope to see a candidate who can resist being forced “into the two narrow boxes that the two major parties have regarding policy positions.” That sounds like a job for one of the aforementioned moderates, but Ackerman seems laissez-faire when it comes to ideology. I ask him if there is fear that Ron Paul’s massive online organization could hijack the Americans Elect process.
“It’s just not something we’re that concerned about,” Ackerman replies. “First of all, we’ve existed in a system that’s already been hijacked. Additionally, whoever the candidate is, they’re going to have to reach across the political space and run with somebody outside of their party.” So … Paul-Kucinich 2012?
What’s important, Ackerman insists, is defining the process, not the ideology.
“Fundamental to everything we’re doing at Americans Elect is the simple idea that if we can change the way that we nominate our leaders, we can change the way we govern ourselves,” he says. “The American people aren’t clamoring for a bunch of centrist solutions. What they’re clamoring for are stable solutions.” The politicians themselves, intriguingly, don’t come in for much criticism—it’s “the system” that gets the blame.
“I don’t think our political leaders have gotten any better or worse along the way,” said Dennis Blair, an Americans Elect board member and the former director of national intelligence in the Obama White House, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “I think the system, as it’s developed, has made them do things which are unworthy of them and certainly unworthy of the country.”
But what, or who, changed the system? An introductory video on the Americans Elect website shows two groups of protesters in silhouette, one red and one blue, yelling nonsensically at each other, having been “fired up” by their respective parties’ nominees. These, presumably, are the extremists who hold our politicians hostage.
To illustrate what they deplore, Ackerman points to the 2010 Republican Senate primary in Delaware, where conservatives elevated Christine O’Donnell to snatch the GOP nomination from the more moderate congressman Mike Castle. O’Donnell went on to lose to the Democrat, Chris Coons, in a race most observers believed Castle would have won handily. If a process like Americans Elect had existed at the state level—as Ackerman says is the plan for 2014 and beyond—Castle might have run and won as an independent.
This aversion to upstart conservative or liberal challengers makes sense when you consider that Christine Todd Whitman, moderate Republican par excellence, is on the board of Americans Elect. And many others attached to the project, like Democrat Les Francis and Republican Mark McKinnon, represent centrist factions that are no longer strong in the major parties. The increasing polarization of our politics may or may not be bad for the country, but it’s done a number on plenty of careers.
With its sophisticated operation and tech savvy, Americans Elect may have more staying power than third parties past. In the best of circumstances for Ackerman and company, this grand experiment with online, open-source political organizing could reorient American politics toward the stable, moderate center.
Or “the people” could nominate Evan Bayh or Jon Huntsman and give him enough votes to tip the election to the Republican or the Democrat. Or “the people” could nominate a Ron Paul or a Dennis Kucinich or a Sarah Palin.
The choice is yours!
Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.