THE STUMP MAY 15, 2012
Now we know what the doomsayers feel like when the decreed day of judgment passes by without thunderbolts or second comings. Americans Elect, which was going to save our benighted political system with the ultimate deus ex machina—a bipartisan, third-choice presidential ticket borne from an online nominating process funded by leveraged-buyout tycoon Peter Ackerman and other deep-pocketed centrists—announced at midnight that the savior has not yet made his or her appearance. Take it away, Politico:
The group had qualified for the general election ballot in 27 states, and had generated concern among Democrats and Republicans alike that it could wreak havoc on a close election between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
But just after a midnight deadline Monday, the group acknowledged that its complicated online nominating process had failed to generate sufficient interest to push any of the candidates who had declared an interest in its nomination over the threshold in its rules.
“Because of this, under the rules that AE delegates ratified, the primary process would end today,” said the group’s Kahlil Byrd in a statement issued at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. He seemed to leave the door open for proceeding outside the original process, however, adding, “There is, however, an almost universal desire among delegates, leadership and millions of Americans who have supported AE to see a credible candidate emerge from this process.”
The person who came closest to meeting the threshold was Buddy Roemer, the former Louisiana governor who labored mightily to win the group’s favor after being shunted rudely aside during the Republican primaries. But AE’s team had its sights set higher—among its dream candidates were Jon Huntsman, Jr., Olympia Snowe, Mike Bloomberg, Lamar Alexander, and David Walker (the former head of the GAO, for those of you who don’t keep up on those things.) Sadly, none of these scintillating figures decided to make the leap, despite occasional flirtation. And the group’s original champion apparently did not see fit to heed my exhortation to pull a Dick Cheney and take the reins himself.
Buzzfeed has, delightfully, compiled a list of quotes from various Very Serious Men, including the aforementioned mustachioed one, declaring that Americans Elect would revolutionize the political process and maybe even help decide this fall’s election. I can state proudly that I am not on that list, having been one of the first to cast a skeptical eye on the whole venture last fall:
In Americans Elect’s diagnosis, Washington’s dysfunction is the fault of ideologically hardened parties held captive by interest groups and the parties’ outer wings. Exhibit A, Elliot Ackerman told me, was the debt-ceiling debacle, in which “Obama, despite all of the supposition that he is this post-partisan independent president, couldn’t substantively put entitlement reform on the table, couldn’t do it, couldn’t sell that with his party base,” while Republicans refused to raise taxes. But didn’t Obama offer major entitlement cuts, including a raised Medicare eligibility age, as part of his rejected “grand bargain”? Well, regardless, Ackerman said, he hasn’t been able to get the big things done, even when Democrats held the House. Byrd, a Republican who worked for Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, noted derisively that Obama’s hopes for moving his jobs agenda had been reduced to encouraging a letter-writing campaign. Said Ackerman: “If he can’t govern with control of the House and control of the Senate and being somewhat of the post-partisan executive he says he is, isn’t that indicative to us that there needs to be some type of systemic change in the way we select our leaders?”
I got deepest into the movement’s governing vision with Matt Miller, a former Clinton administration official who splits his time among a McKinsey consulting gig, the Center for American Progress, and a weekly online Washington Post column. While not officially affiliated with Americans Elect, he has been a major advocate for the third-choice cause—using his column to plead for a “patriotic billionaire” to run for president, given the “abdication of both parties,” “the hoaxes both parties are peddling,” and the “grossly misleading campaigns” both will run. He has laid out a full “third-party stump speech,” which calls for, among other things, a public-works jobs program, taxes on “dirty energy,” higher teacher pay, tougher limits on Wall Street, and cuts in defense spending. I asked him: Did not most of these resemble the platform of a certain Democratic president, especially if he were able to operate unconstrained? Not so, Miller said, pointing to a handful of his stock proposals that he said leaned the other way, such as eliminating corporate taxes, cutting Social Security, and weakening teacher tenure. “I’m interested in the agenda, not the team,” said Miller.
We were meeting at a Starbucks across from the Occupy D.C. encampment at McPherson Square; scruffy protesters queuing for the rest room jostled noisily around the nattily dressed Miller. I asked him whether an agenda as ambitious as his could win public support amid such disillusionment. “If you think we have to aim higher, if you think we have to solve our problems rather than pretending to, then it’s all about how you think we can get closer to that and if there’s any way to get there given the two-party stranglehold on the debate,” he said. “If you had a third-party voice on ‘Meet the Press,’ they’d say: ‘The Democrats are full of it on this; the Republicans are blowing smoke on that. If we were serious, we’d be talking about X, Y, and Z.’ There’s a missing chair.” Moments later, as he headed out the door, Miller paused for a parting caveat. “I’ve been told,” he said, “that it’s all hopelessly naïve.”
Yes, maybe it was. But heck, no harm done, right, unless you were one of the undisclosed donors who gave the group more than $20 million to get on the ballot, with the promise of having one’s money refunded once an actual candidate started raising money on his or her own. And who knows, maybe the group will yet raise a nominee from the ashes of the official online nominating process, though that would seem to call the group’s alleged grass-roots structure even more into question, and give validation to the memorable tag given the group by David Axelrod: “uber-democracy meets back room bosses.” So don’t give up just yet, deadlocked Americans, and keep an eye trained on the heavens above. Your savior may yet be coming—he or she may just have gotten hung up somewhere, maybe while talking up debt reduction with the angels.
follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis