Feb 1 2012

The 1 Percent President

Americans Elect’s hypothetical ‘centrist’ candidate wins plaudits from pundits

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Madison Guy

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Madison Guy

Think big money and Wall Street have too much influence over national politics? Not to worry: A hedge fund-backed third-party presidential candidate will fix all of that.

That’s the pitch coming from a group called Americans Elect. And some of America’s top pundits are loving it. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (7/23/11) gushed:

What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what Drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life—remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in. Watch out.

Daily Beast columnist John Avlon (7/22/11) linked Americans Elect to the Arab Spring: “Like Egypt’s leaderless Facebook revolution, this is a movement without a candidate, happy to create a platform via wiki, and identify potential presidents the way Pandora figures out whether you like Kanye West or Johnny Cash.”

What is this amazing juggernaut of technological and political progress? The Americans Elect plan consists of two parallel efforts. The first is a Web-based political dialogue that empowers citizen “delegates” to identify key issues and then nominate centrist presidential candidates. The second is a more traditional state-by-state petition drive to get the group and its eventual candidate a ballot line.

The Internet delegates will narrow down the pool of acceptably moderate candidates, who then must pledge to nominate a running mate from another political party. An online convention selects the Americans Elect nominee (or possibly not—see sidebar), and a public apparently hungry to move beyond the stale two-party duopoly sends a bona fide centrist to the White House.

It’s not surprising that the cross-partisan ticket would thrill Friedman. The Times pundit (3/28/04) urged Democrat John Kerry to pick Republican John McCain as his 2004 running mate, and suggested in 2007 (11/18/07) that Barack Obama “might want to consider keeping Dick Cheney on as his vice president.”

Friedman noted that the Americans Elect effort was “financed with some serious hedge-fund money,” which in Friedman’s world is one more reason to support it—even for Occupy Wall Street protesters. In a follow-up column (11/9/11), he wrote that Occupy protesters are protesting a political system that has “enabled the financial-services industry to effectively buy the U.S. Congress,” a sign of a political system that is “so beholden to special interests” that it needs “shock therapy from outside”—in the form of Americans Elect, which would “nominate an independent presidential candidate.”

So when Occupy Wall Street sounds the alarm about inequality and a broken political system controlled by financial-industry money, the cure is…a Wall Street-backed presidential nominee, of course. (Bonus irony: Americans Elect chief strategist Douglas Schoen had recently advised Democrats to distance themselves from the “dangerously out of touch” Occupy Wall Street protests—Wall Street Journal, 10/18/11.)

Friedman’s enthusiasm was matched, if not exceeded, by Washington Post columnist Matt Miller. Miller—who co-hosts the public radio program Left, Right and Center (he represents the “center,” naturally)—touted the group in the Post on September 1, telling readers that he had “argued repeatedly” in support of a “radically centrist” presidential candidate. Miller warned that the

political establishment is seriously underestimating the potential of Americans Elect to become a disruptive force in our politics. When the day comes next year that the group announces it has ballot access in all states, the floodgates will open in terms of press, candidates and public interest.

The idea that a middle-of-the-road presidential candidate actually represents a bold, system-shattering move is key to Miller’s argument: Democrats won’t bash teachers unions, he explained in a follow-up column (9/26/11), and would not pursue healthcare reform that threatened the “trial lawyers.” Republicans, meanwhile, don’t want to spend more money on good teachers or give healthcare to the uninsured. The solution, apparently, is in the middle.

Miller wrote one more column (10/6/11) touting radical centrism, reiterating its supposed threat to the status quo:

The more I talk about the need for a problem-solving third party in the “extreme” center, the more people come out of the woodwork to tell me they’ve reached the same conclusion. But some in high places have to keep their views secret, at least for now, out of fear that their institutional duties and bucking today’s two-party tyranny can’t mix.

Miller’s not the only one who thinks that advocating radical centrism might be a risky business. That’s basically the position of Americans Elect, which burst on the scene with $20 million to spend on this idea—without disclosing the source of its money.

A major backer is mega-investor Peter Ackerman, whose son Elliot is Americans Elect’s chief operating officer. The elder Ackerman—who is also the group’s board chair—reportedly put in over a million dollars, and an array of other wealthy individuals have ponied up as well. The group changed its tax status from a 527 political group to a 501(c)4 “social welfare” organization, which means the source of its funds can remain undisclosed.

Campaign finance watchdogs have been deeply critical of these moves, pointing out that 501(c)4 organizations are not supposed to engage in political advocacy (Mother Jones.com, 11/18/11). How could running a presidential candidate be considered anything but political?

A Los Angeles Times editorial (7/29/11) questioned the group for practicing “secrecy in the cause of openness.” But that paper’s political columnist Doyle McManus wrote two upbeat pieces about the group (10/27/11, 11/20/11). In the second, he addressed the group’s critics, arguing that the answers about the group’s finances “will disappoint anyone who likes a good conspiracy,” since the group is really “just a collection of dissatisfied moderates.” McManus concluded that their efforts “just might reduce the polarization that has infected the two major traditional parties and paralyzed Washington. And that means it’s worth a try.”

Of course, any high-profile effort that so consciously appeals to “centrism” is bound to be welcomed in corporate media, where the middle of the road has long been celebrated as the only sensible outpost on the political spectrum (Extra!, 10-11/89, 12/06). As the Washington Post reported (11/25/11), Americans Elect will “represent a promising new chapter for political moderates, who see a wide-open middle in the political landscape.”

Post reporter Perry Bacon wrote a lengthy piece (9/25/11) that amounted to a kind of intellectual and strategic roadmap for Americans Elect, based on the vague premise that what the country needs right now is “centrism.” He suggested that this pragmatic agenda “would never get anywhere because politically moderate ideas, though generally popular among voters, rarely get traction in Washington.”

What exactly is this broadly popular yet dead-on-arrival set of ideas? Bacon cited a deficit-reduction package that would stress spending and Social Security/Medicare cuts—ideas that are more popular in Washington than in the country at large, where they generally poll very poorly (Extra!, 6/11).

Bacon nonetheless recommended that centrists become “rigidly devoted” to centrism, and that a “powerful centrist movement” needs, among other things, a lot of money, “formal political organizations” and “a group of leaders ready to fight for moderation.”

Obama, in Bacon’s view, veered away from sensible centrism and toward “a much more traditionally liberal” plan that was “full of tax increases Republicans oppose.” He urged “high-profile moderates” to advocate for a centrist jobs bill—”middle-of-the-road ideas for getting people back to work.” What would that be? Bacon never explained, instead advising that “to change politics, the political center needs to define what that moniker truly means.” That is something that Bacon, given over 2,000 words, couldn’t really do.

Such fuzziness is familiar, especially from the likes of Friedman, who has constantly argued in favor of a more “centrist” Obama White House. But when Friedman gets down to specifics, he winds up describing the White House that already exists (FAIR Blog, 7/27/11, 9/21/11). As Robert Kuttner argued (Huffington Post, 12/18/11):

As anyone who hasn’t spent the last three decades on Jupiter must know, Democrats have spent the era since Jimmy Carter moving to the middle of the spectrum on a broad range of pocketbook and national security issues. Only on tolerance issues has the presidential party remained progressive. So we already have a centrist party. It’s called the presidential Democratic Party.

The “centrism” of certain media and political elites amounts to nebulous, high-minded advocacy for a politics that, on the surface, offends or empowers no one and apportions blame for the current political stalemate to “both sides” equally. What it really is, though, is a call for Democrats to move to the right, and—on issues like spending cuts—for the poor to sacrifice more. Americans Elect may or may not be a factor in the 2012 presidential election. But it’s a sure bet that corporate media will be pulling for them.

Sidebar: Americans Elect? Not Exactly

So who would be on an Americans Elect ticket? As the name suggests, the people would decide that—except they might not.

As some critics have noted (Daily Kos, 12/21/11), the group’s bylaws empower a Candidate Certification Committee to veto the candidates chosen by an Internet vote. The committee, according to chief operating officer Elliot Ackerman (Christian Science Monitor, 7/29/11), is merely “making sure we have candidates who bridge the center of American public opinion.” The public can overturn the committee’s decision that it knows better—with a two-thirds majority in a revote.

Actual names have been floated by the group’s leaders and associates. Newsweek noted (11/13/11) that the “top target” might be Republican candidate Jon Huntsman, with an Americans Elect spokesperson saying that their ticket “creates a new opportunity” for Huntsman—a “guy who is not polling well but definitely has another avenue now to run.”

A Boston Globe report (11/13/11) mentioned Huntsman, along with Republican candidate Buddy Roemer. Former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel was also on the list, along with former Republican secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, and even NBC newscaster Tom Brokaw. The Christian Science Monitor (7/29/11) reported that some Americans Elect officials have talked up a Gen. David Petraeus/Michael Bloomberg ticket.

As Daily Beast columnist John Avlon (7/22/11) put it:

“More likely is the nomination of a centrist dream team, like a Mike Bloomberg/Colin Powell competence ticket or a fiscal-responsibility double bill of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. Mark Warner, Chuck Hagel, David Petraeus—the possibilities are infinite.”

Infinite? Not exactly.