Americans Elect's website lets voters choose the presidential nominee. (americanselect.org )
Are political centrists in America without a political home? Do we need a third-party presidential candidate to represent those socially progressive, fiscally austere voters who find our two parties too extreme?
There's no disputing that the Republican Party continues to move rightward at warp speed. Virtually every GOP elected official who's been in office for more than a couple of years has had to repudiate previously mainstream Republican positions (such as creating a health insurance system with an individual mandate, an idea cooked up by a right-wing think tank) to keep today's more rabid Republican activists from challenging them in party primaries or caucuses. Such longtime conservative stalwarts as Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Richard Lugar of Indiana could lose their party's renomination this spring from just such challenges.
In this year's GOP presidential primaries, each of the four candidates has attacked the others only from the right. Logic suggests that every GOP candidate cannot be to the right of every other GOP candidate, but if that's what this year's Republican base demands — and it is — then logic be damned: Everyone is running to the right.
No equivalent dynamic exists within the Democratic Party. President Obama's ostensibly socialistic healthcare reform was modeled closely on Republican-originated and Mitt Romney-activated prototypes. In his negotiations with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) last summer, Obama was willing to slash entitlement programs beneath even the recommendations of the centrist Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction commission. In 2008, Obama and primary rival Hillary Rodham Clinton both attempted to cast themselves as the most moderate.
But the myth exists that the Democrats are as radical as the Republicans, despite data collected by political scientists Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker showing that congressional Republicans have galloped much further right in recent decades than congressional Democrats have to the left. Nonetheless, some very wealthy Americans, declaring themselves the excluded center, have ponied up for a new proto-party for the mythically missing center. It's called Americans Elect.
As of the end of 2011, Americans Elect had raised $22 million — chiefly from donations of $100,00 or more that came from just 55 individuals — to gain ballot access for its candidate to be in the 50 states. (It's already secured that status in California.) We don't know whom most of those individuals are because Americans Elect claims the status of a social welfare organization, not a party, and as such is not obliged to list its funders. We do know that its website has a "leadership" list of roughly 100 people, and that of the 90 or so who aren't the organization's staffers or consultants, 20 are heads or leading executives of hedge funds, private equity firms and major banks. If Americans Elect is spearheading a revolution, it's a revolution of the 1%.
While the founders and most prominent leaders of Americans Elect (above all, private equity executive Peter Ackerman, who provided the group with $5 million in seed money) bring to the group the perspectives of culturally liberal financiers (mega-billionaire and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is often mentioned as a possible candidate), they have set up an online nominating process whose results are hard to predict. People who go on the group's website and become members will be able to choose one of the several declared candidates whose positions are laid out on the website. To date, the only declared candidate who is known outside his immediate family is former Louisiana Republican Gov. Buddy Roemer, whose pedigree and maverick positions don't fit neatly into the worldviews of the organization's donors.
The group's nine-member board of directors, which Ackerman put together, retains the right to vet and even veto the candidates, though a majority of the online membership can reverse that veto. But are candidates with more of a following than Roemer willing to come forward? There's been some speculation that Maine RepublicanSen. Olympia Snowe, who recently announced she'd not seek reelection because of Congress' extreme polarization, might want to wage a presidential campaign on Americans Elect's ticket.
Snowe holds the distinction of being the only member of Congress to have voted for Obama's healthcare reform bill in committee and against it on the floor. For Americans who both support and oppose "Obamacare," she's the perfect candidate.
Whoever Americans Elect's nominee turns out to be, that person could well replicate the signally dubious achievement of Ralph Nader in the 2000 election: Throwing the election to one of the two major-party nominees who otherwise would not have won. November's election is likely to be very close, and it takes no imaginative leap to envision this third-party candidate getting enough votes in a key swing state to toss the presidency to the otherwise loser. For those who believe that America already has traumas enough, Americans Elect is an unnecessary looming disaster.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post.