Mark Schmitt has just written a solid critique in the New Republic of the failing political enterprise that is Americans Elect. On this site and elsewhere, I’ve echoed Schmitt’s point that the putatively grassroots organization has turned into little more than a society of well connected K Street/Wall Street donors and establishment types who are steering toward some amorphous “center.” I‘ve also argued that this center is a socially liberal, deficit conscious, selectively pro big business zone that reflects the worldview of any lobbyist-paid lunch table at the Palm or Bobby Vann’s. In other words, less a coherent middle ground than a hodgepodge of views that are already well represented in American discourse, especially at elite levels.
As Schmitt documents, the group has lagged in its audacious plan to elevate a third party presidential candidate. Its goal of securing ballot access in 50 states, which was supposed to have been accomplished last fall, has barely crossed the halfway point. The top contenders in their online virtual primary—Buddy Roemer and an unauthorized rump of Ron Paul diehards– are compiling embarrassingly low numbers that look like single precinct caucus totals. And the veil of indifference about the identity of an eventual candidate has been lifted in favor of a not so covert push for former Comptroller General David Walker, a serious man but one whose flirtations with running have yielded 360 online votes and an occasional Google alert.
The failure is not surprising: the two occasions in which a third party has genuinely broken through in our politics have involved either a national catastrophe—the Republicans who were born from the disintegration of the country over slavery in the antebellum era—or the galvanizing presence of a charismatic former president, Theodore Roosevelt, who was denied a comeback by his party’s retrograde machine. For all of the angst over our current partisanship, America circa 2012 is not remotely a nation in fundamental disarray, or one whose political institutions are unraveling. The Tea Party on the right has already realigned into what amounts to a populist wing within the Republican Party while Occupy Wall Street on the left has quickly faded into irrelevance and incoherence.
Nor is there a figure of undeniable stature who could have capitalized on the discontent that does exist. The 22nd Amendment has cancelled out the possibility of a popular ex president stalking the landscape waiting to be recalled to duty (think of the campaign Bill Clinton might be waging). Even compelling figures like Hillary Clinton in 2008 and John McCain in 2000, each of whom might have had a rationale to take their case to the general election, were much too tied to their party’s infrastructure to contemplate a break that might have inspired a third party.
It is a testament to the insularity of the operatives and funders of Americans Elect that they confused last summer’s Acela corridor angst with Barack Obama and K Street’s fear of a far-right coup inside the GOP with the atmospheric conditions for a systemic breakdown. If a sustainable centrist politics were the agenda, it would have made infinitely more sense for Americans Elect to invest its capital in running genuine moderates in 15 to 20 congressional primaries in an effort to gain a tangible balance of power (as opposed to the hypothetical influence a 15 percent presidential contender would have on a winner who secured roughly three times that level of support). The strategy would have provided an authentic counter-weight to the right’s influence in the GOP and to the strength of organized Democratic interests like labor unions (who ended the careers of two moderate Pennsylvania Democratic congressmen in primaries last month).
Alternatively, the same cash could have been deployed in running third party slates in swing congressional districts, an approach that Matt Miller at the Washington Post hinted at in a few columns. While it would have been tough to dislodge two party voting preferences, the leveraging of dollars in local media markets would have gone further than the same funds could ever go in a national race; moreover, the marketing of a targeted effort to break the two party grip on Congress might have had far broader appeal than a quixotic bid to “influence” the next president through a protest vote.
Schmitt suggests in his column that Americans Elect languishes for lack of a major, galvanizing idea. His point is absolutely right, although his proffered solution, deficit reduction, is precisely the agenda that Obama was pursuing when his numbers hit rock bottom last August; it is also a fact that the Republican Party’s big thinking on deficits, the Ryan Plan, is the single least popular element of its election year messaging. The specifics of cutting deficits remain far less alluring than its generalities.
My hunch is that if there is a sweetspot in the center of American politics, it hinges around the standard of comprehensive, aggressive reform of stagnant public institutions, in an effort to make them more accountable: overhauling the tenure protections that make public education the most uncompetitive, insulated service profession in American life; revamping unemployment insurance to add a mandatory job training component; weakening the grip of special interest money on campaigns; and subjecting federal agencies to meaningful performance reviews that yield cuts that are smart but not indiscriminate.
The fact that the elite behind Americans Elect has had so little to say about a wholesale reform agenda—indeed, the fact that its main spear carrier, Tom Friedman, just co-authored an entire book on economic competitiveness without ever mentioning the Affordable Care Act, or the regulatory drag on small business growth, or the NLRB’s effort to block South Carolina from recruiting Boeing leads to an inevitable suspicion: Americans Elect is small-ball that exists less to transform politics than to shape the margins of the politics we have now. In other words, countering the anti-tax orthodoxy on the right and getting Democrats a touch more serious about deficits. I’ll repeat what I’ve said before: if you want real change, these aren’t the people you have been waiting for.