This November, when Barack Obama faces off against his Republican opponent, there will be a third candidate in the race, too. This candidate has already qualified for the ballot in 14 states, including California. The campaign to ensure the candidate’s ballot access in all 50 states has raised $22 million (more than the campaigns of every Republican presidential candidate except Mitt Romney), with which it has employed 3,000 paid signature gatherers and enlisted 3,000 volunteers.
This third candidate probably doesn’t have to do all that well to affect the outcome of the presidential election. Most polling shows that the general election will be close, both nationally and in a number of swing states. It takes no great imaginative leap to envision a scenario in which this third candidate tips a key state to Obama or his GOP opponent, much as Ralph Nader tipped Florida to George W. Bush in 2000.
Only this time around, there’s one signal difference: We have no idea who that third candidate will be or what he or she stands for. For that matter, we also have no idea who the donors of that $22 million are, though the organization they’ve given to has published a list of “leaders” chock-full of private-equity executives and hedge-fund managers.
The group that is working to put this yet-to-be-identified worthy before us come November is called Americans Elect. It is the creation of financier Peter Ackerman, a 65-year-old private-equity executive who made his fortune working alongside Michael Milken at Drexel Burnham Lambert in the 1980s—and who is also a leading advocate for and financial supporter of Gandhian nonviolent political change around the world. Like Ackerman himself, Americans Elect seems to have two distinct identities clumped into one. On the one hand, it seeks to update the nominee-selection process for the digital age through online voting. On the other, it looks to create a political vehicle for the socially tolerant, fiscally conservative financial establishment that Ackerman, and the colleagues he’s persuaded to join the organization’s leadership, personify.
Americans Elect has established a website on which voters can register their membership (roughly 350,000 have joined so far) and, come June, nominate by majority vote a presidential candidate who has met Americans Elect’s candidate criteria—chiefly, that he or she has chosen a member of the opposite party as his or her running mate. As of mid-January, leaders of the organization had met with 30 potential candidates; according to one insider, six are seriously considering making the run. Should they plunge in, they will announce their candidacies on the website, lay out their positions, answer members’ questions, and submit themselves to several rounds of member voting until a nominee is selected.
To ensure that the online voting isn’t gamed by some disgruntled individuals or groups, voting the dead in some digital version of old Mayor Daley’s Chicago, Americans Elect has employed a number of computer security experts to ensure that the voting is valid. Some election technology experts don’t believe, however, that any foolproof system yet exists.
The organization’s leaders insist that theirs is a more inclusive selection process than the two parties’ primaries. But Americans Elect’s membership of 350,000, though it will surely rise, for now constitutes 1 percent of the roughly 36 million who voted in the 2008 Democratic primary fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Moreover, digitization and democratization are hardly synonymous: Chances are that Americans Elect’s membership, with its built-in bias toward life online, both over- and underrepresents distinct portions of its potential voting base. Its electorate is likely to be both younger and wonkier than the group of Americans who share Ackerman’s political beliefs.
The digitization of politics is only part of Americans Elect’s mission. Its other, greater purpose is to give a voice to what it believes is the “disempowered center” of American politics—thus the requirement that its presidential ticket must represent both parties. What the country needs, Americans Elect insists, are leaders who draw their ideas and support from both parties, from liberals and conservatives. If you press them, Americans Elect’s officials go further and say that what the country really needs are culturally liberal, fiscally conservative leaders—leaders whose thinking matches that of the nation’s socially enlightened business elites from whose brow Americans Elect has sprung.
“What do I want in the ticket?” asks Eliot Cutler, who ran an unsuccessful independent campaign for governor of Maine in 2010 (splitting the center-left vote and thereby helping elect a right-wing Republican) and is a member of Americans Elect’s nine-member board of directors. “A ticket that reflects moderate politics, a pragmatic approach to politics, that looks like the Bowles-Simpson Commission in terms of approach—people who reflect my own biases toward social progressivism and fiscal discipline.”
The myth of the disempowered center is at the core of the Wall Street establishment’s—and Americans Elect’s—analysis of how America got off track. To explore its particulars, we can either watch a month’s worth of Charlie Rose shows or, better still, turn to New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, the bard of America’s pro-globalization, pro-gay-rights, pro-charter-school corporate elite. Over the past two years, Friedman has also served as Americans Elect’s loudest and most influential drumbeater.
In March 2010, Friedman wrote, “We need political innovation that takes America’s disempowered radical center and enables it to act in proportion to its true size, unconstrained by the two parties, interest groups and orthodoxies that have tied our politics in knots.” The radical center, Friedman continued, “advocates: raising taxes to close our budgetary shortfalls, but doing so with a spirit of equity and social justice; guaranteeing that every American is covered by health insurance, but with market reforms to really bring down costs; legally expanding immigration to attract more job-creators to America’s shores; increasing corporate tax credits for research and lowering corporate taxes if companies will move more manufacturing jobs back onshore; investing more in our public schools, while insisting on rising national education standards and greater accountability for teachers, principals and parents; massively investing in clean energy, including nuclear, while allowing more offshore drilling in the transition.”
Then, in July of last year, Friedman returned to the topic to report that he’d discovered a vehicle for his fellow centrist malcontents—Americans Elect.
But are the viewpoints of Friedman’s radical center and, by extension, Americans Elect without a home in American politics? Do they lack a champion under the current political system? Consider Friedman’s list of radical-centrist positions: increased but equitable taxes, universal health insurance that cuts costs, more money and accountability for schools, more generous research-and-development tax credits and lower taxes for companies that inshore, major investments in clean energy. Aren’t those precisely the positions taken by Barack Obama, president and Democrat? Aren’t these positions backed by congressional Democrats and, in the 2009–2010 session of Congress, positions that in greater or lesser degree became law? And when they didn’t become law or were watered down, wasn’t that because Republicans opposed virtually everything Obama brought before them, even when those proposals, such as universal health care through private insurance or environmental advances achieved through cap-and-trade, had a Republican pedigree? Didn’t Obama propose to House Speaker John Boehner major cuts in entitlement outlays, exceeding those in the Bowles-Simpson proposals, in return for raising the debt ceiling and enacting a second stimulus? Wasn’t Obama the very model of a split-the-difference president until the Republicans rejected his every overture?
If so—and it is so—what’s Americans Elect’s beef? Why would their president succeed at the task at which Obama failed? They argue that a president elected on an Americans Elect ticket would have a demonstrable mandate for bipartisanship that Congress could ignore only at its own peril. All new presidents have mandates, however, which congresses have shown themselves eminently capable of ignoring.
But to concede that Obama has reached out to Republicans and been rebuffed undercuts Americans Elect’s analysis of what’s happened to our politics. Underpinning the group’s cherished myth of the disempowered center is the belief that not only has the Republican Party been moving inexorably rightward but that the Democrats have also marched steadily leftward. Retired Admiral Dennis Blair, who was director of national intelligence in the first year of the Obama administration and now sits with Cutler and Ackerman on Americans Elect’s board of directors, complains that “the extreme wings have captured both parties,” and notes, correctly, that there’s unprecedentedly little overlap in the voting behavior of the two parties’ House members. As examples of this polarization, he points to immigration; polling shows that most Americans “believe we have to strengthen our borders but also deal humanely with those already here. Somehow, our political system defines this as doing one thing or the other but not both.”
Never mind that the position of Obama and the congressional Democrats is that of most Americans and that it’s the Republicans, not the “political system,” who pit border security against immigrant legalization.
Pressed for an example of how the Democrats, like the Republicans, have been captured by extremists, Blair cites “the way candidate Obama had to say that free trade was a terrible idea, because of the unions. Everybody knows that the country benefits hugely from free trade, though we certainly have to help workers who lose jobs.”
Never mind that Obama has successfully pushed Congress to ratify trade treaties with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia since becoming president. Never mind that the “everybody” who believes in the huge benefits of free trade doesn’t include the majority of the American people (by the evidence of any poll taken in recent years), for whom globalization has chiefly meant wage stagnation or decline.
Americans Elect, and Friedmanism more generally, are premised on a misdiagnosis of what ails American politics. It’s not that the Democrats have been shifting leftward. Rather, as political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson demonstrate in their book Off Center, it’s that the Republicans, based increasingly in the white South, have been galloping rightward to the point where any governmental endeavor poses an affront to their anti-statist ideology.
Nor has the center in American politics been historically the creation of the kind of split-the-difference politicians for whom Americans Elect yearns. Rather, the center is periodically redefined by presidents of non-centrist ideologies—Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, for instance—who shape a whole generation of political thought and practice around their own beliefs.
At least some leaders of Americans Elect acknowledge that their pox-on-both-your-houses diagnosis is politically useful for their purposes. Americans experienced in rapid succession the debt-ceiling debate and the failure of the Super Committee to resolve it, says Kahlil Byrd, a Massachusetts Republican political consultant who’s worked for the state’s Democratic governor and is now Americans Elect’s CEO. “Then they didn’t see a jobs program,” he says, “but instead a debate on a two-month extension of the payroll tax. The American people are exhausted by it all. They know we can do better.”
“Wasn’t that the fault of House Republicans?” I ask him.
“The American people don’t cut the apple that fine,” he replies.
The failure to assign blame to the increasingly radical Republican Party isn’t the only misdiagnosis that Americans Elect makes. To the extent that the health-care reform act failed to rein in rising costs, for instance, that was chiefly a function not of a missing center in American politics but of the political clout of the pharmaceutical and other health-care industries—that is, of sway that money holds over Congress. But rather than seeking to diminish money’s role in politics, Americans Elect has given money a new point of entry into the political system.
Initially, the organization claimed the tax status of a 527—an independent political organization that was required to report its contributors. Once Ackerman began soliciting donations, however, it claimed the status of a 501(c)(4)—primarily a social-welfare organization and thus not obliged to make public the names of its donors and the amounts of their donations. (It’s a status also claimed by the new super PACs, which are the largest spenders in this year’s Republican primaries.) Longtime campaign-finance reformer Fred Wertheimer has requested that the Internal Revenue Service review Americans Elect’s tax status, since “it is actually qualifying itself as a political party for state ballot access laws” and parties are not entitled to tax-exempt status.
If the bulk of Americans Elect’s funding came from small donations made on its website, that would be one thing. But most of the $22 million the organization had raised by mid-December, according to Elliot Ackerman, the group’s COO and Peter’s son, came from about 55 people who gave more than $100,000 apiece. A couple of donors—the senior Ackerman, who’s anted up $5 million, and John Burbank, managing member and CIO of Passport Capital LLC, who’s given $2.5 million—have identified themselves. The rest have not. “Retribution in politics is real,” Elliot Ackerman says. Actually, repercussions for political donations in America are few and far between. Pressed for details, Ackerman adds, “People were told they were not welcome at parties.”
Americans Elect may not have published a list of its donors, but it does post on its website, right below the board of directors, a list of names it calls “Leadership.” According to Elliot Ackerman, the people on the list “are intimately involved in the effort inasmuch as they’ve been supportive.” Ackerman didn’t reveal any more explicit criteria for getting on the list, but it certainly reads as if one plausible path to membership is to become a major donor. Of the 69 people on the list (not counting the 11 who are either American Elect staffers or consultants working for the group), 20 either head or are senior executives of financial institutions, chiefly private-equity firms or hedge funds—far more than come from any other sector or profession. The leaders also include attorneys, academics, think-tank officials, the heads of a few retail and media companies, and a smattering of politically homeless former elected officials—Cutler and former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. No one from labor, the clergy, the environmental community, civil or women’s rights groups, anti-tax organizations, or any political activist group of any persuasion is on the list. Demographically, says someone who’s met with the group, “there’s no diversity. It’s mainly white men in their sixties and seventies.”
Americans Elect isn’t eager to explain the overrepresentation of Wall Streeters among its leaders, but three hypotheses spring to mind: First, that these are the people who are Peter Ackerman’s colleagues and friends; second, that Ackerman went to Wall Street for the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks: That’s where the money is. The third is sheer speculation: that a stratum of financial executives, too liberal on cultural issues to back Romney, are among those angry at Obama for singling out Wall Street for causing the Great Recession and targeting the rich for higher taxes.
On January 1, the organization posted 15 questions that candidates must answer, but the list failed to include any questions about the rise in economic inequality or the stagnation of most Americans’ incomes. “We get to it by talking about jobs,” Byrd explains when I ask him about the omission.
Of course, it’s possible that the financial executives are listed as leaders solely because they provide advice, not funding, to the organization. But that would be even more disquieting: With all the distinguished Americans from whom the group could seek counsel, why concentrate on such a narrow and unrepresentative stratum?
Created to carry out two distinct missions—inventing an online platform to democratize the nomination process and creating a political home for its own brand of centrism—Americans Elect came into the world with a congenital birth defect: Its first mission could well subvert its second. Other than the requirement that its candidates select a running mate from the opposite party, there’s no guarantee that its eventual nominee will fit the political profile its founders are seeking. The rules stipulate that current or former elected officials, corporate CEOs, university presidents, and labor leaders will automatically pass muster. Other candidates must be cleared by the Candidate Certification Committee, lest Kim Kardashian or Tim Tebow build an online following.
Still, the possibility that a Ron Paul or, worse, a Joe Arpaio could mobilize his followers and win the nomination has evidently vexed Americans Elect’s founders. Initially, the board of directors—which includes the senior Ackerman, three Americans Elect functionaries, Blair, Cutler, Whitman, retired Hallmark Cards CEO Irvine O. Hockaday Jr., and Dean Stephen Bosworth of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Diplomacy—reserved for itself the right to nullify a nomination unless the members overturned the nullification by a two-thirds vote. Attacked for this abrogation of democracy, the organization changed the rules so that a majority of voting members could overrule the board’s decision.
Still, the conflict between the process and the political content to which Americans Elect is committed points to the problems of a third party created from the top down. In a democratic political organization, the board of directors would be selected by the members, rather than by its founder. But Americans Elect, while professing to expand American democracy and creating a platform for a different kind of plebiscite, is neither internally democratic nor inclined to grapple with the main impediment to democracy in America: the role of money. Indeed, by its reliance on a narrow stratum of major donors, the group only exacerbates the hold that Wall Street has on Washington.
To date, the four political leaders for whom Americans Elect’s online members have expressed the greatest preference in their comments—in order, Paul, Obama, Romney, and Vermont socialist Senator Bernie Sanders—suggest that getting the kind of candidate that the organization’s officers want may prove trickier than they had envisioned. Clearly, the one politician whose followers are most inclined to a third-party run is Paul. If the Texas congressman finds himself a left-libertarian running mate and cinches Americans Elect’s nomination, one can imagine the likes of Ackerman, Whitman, and Blair chasing after their creation, like Dr. Frankenstein after his monster, trying to run him to ground.
Paul would surely bring Romney (or any other Republican nominee) down: A mid-January poll from the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner firm shows that in a three-way Obama-Romney-Paul race, Obama would beat Romney by 9 percentage points. Romney didn’t fare any better in the poll if New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a candidate more to Ackerman’s liking, also joined the fray, but the poll doesn’t predict what would happen if Bloomberg dropped a couple of billion dollars of his own fortune, which he could easily afford, on his campaign.
The more likely scenario is that neither Paul nor Bloomberg will opt to run. Out of deference to the political prospects of his son, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, the elder Paul may not make the race. Should Romney be the GOP nominee, Bloomberg has to ask himself how many Wall Street gazillionaires can run in a single election. Should Newt Gingrich be the nominee, Bloomberg or someone with politics close to his might just run. The consequences would be difficult to predict: Such a candidate would likely attract upscale voters from both Gingrich’s and Obama’s columns. Then again, if more than one white candidate is on the ballot in a state with a large minority electorate, Obama might carry the state on the strength of the black, Latino, and white liberal vote.
Who knows? A disgruntled American electorate has been known to cast its votes for some dubious third-party candidates. By November 1992, the American people knew Ross Perot was a little loony, and they gave him 19 percent of the vote anyway. They’re in a worse mood today than they were then.