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Can There Be a Decent Center? What a Worthwhile Third Party Would Look Like

Other than the brief period when the concept of “President Newt Gingrich” looked slightly plausible, the strangest phenomenen in this otherwise predictable election season has been Americans Elect, a political “party” without a platform or a candidate, but with a likely place on the ballot in almost every state. For now, it may seem the only reasonable response to the benighted Americans Elect is to ignore it (as many clearly have). But if we ever hope to have a third party actually worthy of our attention, it would help to understand the many flaws of the one we have now.

The basic confusion of Americans Elect has been well described, particularly by Alec MacGillis in this magazine, but in the past week, the absurdities have piled up: Despite winning ballot access in its twenty-sixth state, it had to postpone its online nomination process because participation was so low. The leading candidates—former Louisana governor Buddy Roemer among the declared candidates and Ron Paul among the “draft” candidates who have not announced—have numbers of supporters more befitting a single precinct in the Iowa caucus than a national primary.

On top of that, neither seems to be the kind of candidate the Americans Elect board is looking for. The group claims to be agnostic about the substance of the party’s platform, but tipped its hand last week, when a handful of its organizers peeled off to form a committee to draft David Walker, the former Comptroller General and president of the deficit-focused Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Earlier, AE had changed the requirements for Walker to qualify for its nomination: Candidates with “qualifications similar to previous presidents” need only 1,000 supporters in each of ten states, others need 5,000. At some point, Walker was apparently upgraded to presidential-level qualifications. Still, even after the rules change and a Walker media blitz, the number of his supporters went from 240 to 360. (Only 9,640 to go!) The move to draft Walker shows not so much a preference for a candidate (the organization’s leaders would probably still prefer that Michael Bloomberg throw his billions into the ring), but that they do have a view on the issues: Walker's single issue is the federal deficit.

Meanwhile, the delay in the nomination process, coupled with the rapid march toward ballot access, is an astonishing reminder of the power of money in the political process. But it is also a reminder of money’s limits. There are things that can be done with money, such as getting on the ballot through paid petitioning, and things that cannot, such as generating real public interest. Americans Elect ranks up there with the presidential campaign of Rick Perry in the ratio of money to actual enthusiasm, and with Gingrich’s in its dependence on a small number of mega-donors. The principal funders, mainly former investment banker Peter Ackerman, recently changed the rules to hold that no one donor could contribute more than 20 percent of the party’s total funds, but what that means in practice is that if I gave $100, rather than going to Americans Elect, it would go directly to Ackerman as a reimbursement to reduce his share. Why would any donor want to do that?

So Americans Elect recapitulates many of the problems with the electoral system it seeks to fix: It’s evasive about actual policy choices, and driven by money rather than enthusiasm. And what’s not often noted about it is that, much like its counterpart, No Labels, it is dominated by people who are DC’s winners—successful lobbyists and campaign consultants. The newest member of the advisory board, for example, is Jerry Jasinowski, the longtime head of the National Association of Manufacturers. Mark McKinnon, a top strategist in George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, is the most prominent public face of the organization. As a channel for discontent with the political process, it’s like a company-controlled union.

But the deepest problem with Americans Elect is its unspoken Great Man Theory of American politics (and this is a Great Man Theory: you can count on one hand the women among the 26 declared candidates and top 50 draft candidates for the AE nomination): All we need to break through Washington’s dysfunction, so goes the idea, is a president with the will to get things done. Weirdly, this theory echoes both the most delirious Grant Park dreams of what Barack Obama would be able to achieve in the White House, and the delusions of Obama’s sharpest critics from the left, who insist that if he had only pushed harder for a bigger economic stimulus or a public option in health reform he would both have more to show for his presidency and be coasting to reelection. If the last three years have not demonstrated that the President operates within the constraints of an extremely complicated institutional structure with veto points everywhere, what could convince someone? How would a president with no allies in Congress do better?

And yet, for all that Americans Elect doesn’t get, it’s hard to argue with the idea that American politics might need a fresh voice or third party. There really is something in Washington’s partisan political process that makes it impossible to produce consensus. Sure, as Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann point out, Republicans bear far more responsibility for the polarization and paralysis. But after allocating blame, we still need to find a way out of this dynamic. And there are examples, in our recent history, where a third party or an independent candidate has been able to disrupt a stagnant political climate. In 1990, for example, former senator Lowell P. Weicker was elected governor of Connecticut and was able to enact a state income tax—something  that that needed to be done, but that neither party wanted to risk. With a little thought, and some patience, Americans Elect, or a party like it, might be able to do something similar.

What would it take for an effective, centrist third party to actually unlock some of the paralysis of Washington? First, of course, it would have to take a stand on at least one issue. If the leaders of Americans Elect truly believe that deficit reduction should be the country’s number one priority, then it does no good to pretend otherwise by setting up an ostensibly neutral nominating process in a show of high-mindedness. Instead, they should proclaim their allegiances explicitly and,seek candidates who take strong and specific positions on budget cuts and tax hikes. That alone would be a real contrast, particularly with the evasive Mitt Romney.

Second, the organization would have to think about reforms to the political process that would enable a third party to have a constructive influence. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in his recent column begging Bloomberg to join the race (in the hope that he would address pressing national priorities such as poor cell phone reception along the Acela route in South Jersey) argued that even if Bloomberg or another Americans Elect candidate got only 15 percent of the vote, he would “change the course of the next administration, no matter who heads it.” That’s not true, of course—the candidate would more likely be a spoiler, taking votes from the candidate closer to his views and handing the election to the other.

One solution that a third party like Americans Election should be pushing for, then, is fusion—the ability of a party to cross-endorse candidates from another party. Five states permit fusion, and in New York, it allows the Working Families Party, as well as others in the past, to influence elections and government without winning elections or acting as spoilers, unless they chose to. Barack Obama currently ranks fourth among Americans Elect’s draft candidates and in my view meets the qualification of a centrist who wants to reach across the aisle. But even if he were nominated by Americans Elect voters, the party couldn’t put him on its ballot line, because of the prohibition on fusion. (Interestingly, fusion was banned in most states in the late 1890s in order to block a potential Democratic-Populist alliance.) If candidates from either party, and at the congressional and local level as well, were able to compete for the Americans Elect line, then the party would certainly shape the election and the administration.

A similar solution would be instant-runoff voting, in which voters would get a second-choice vote, which would then be counted if their first choice didn’t finish in the top two. That would allow Romney and Obama to compete for the second choices of Americans Elect-candidate backers, altering their pitch and platform as necessary. Instant-runoff voting is tailor-made for centrist parties and candidates, much moreso than for parties of the left or right.

And, of course, much of the stasis and paralysis of American politics has to do with money. With the price of entry to a competitive congressional race reaching $2 million this year, it’s almost impossible for a fresh voice to enter the process. The best use for Ackerman’s millions might be to push for a public financing system at the congressional level, and to fix the system at the presidential level, so that alternatives can be heard. Finally, of course, congressional reform, starting with an end to the filibuster, would be necessary for a president of any party or no party to actually get anything done. Achieving that would require competing in congressional elections as well as at the presidential level.

The point is that political change takes diligence, patience, and a real theory about the goal and how to achieve it. Eventually, the United States might have a third, fourth, or fifth party that earns clout by showing appreciation of that reality. In this election cycle, at least, it seems clear that Americans Elect won’t be it.

Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and former editor of The American Prospect.