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Third Wheel

Yet another attempt to upend the two-party system.

There is a movement afoot in the land, but I don’t mean the one amid the tarps at Zuccotti Park. Instead, it’s a 148-person operation headquartered in a tenth-floor office on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington decorated with sleek posters that proclaim, “Make My Vote Count” and “Open Up The Ballot.” Hanging in the reception area is a framed op-ed column praising the movement, written by the man who is its Marx or Engels: Tom Friedman.

This is Americans Elect, the latest attempt to challenge the country’s two-party duopoly from the political center. Next summer, the group will hold an online convention to nominate a bipartisan ticket for president and vice president. Scoff at your peril: Americans Elect is more than halfway to the 2.9 million signatures it needs to be on the ballot in all 50 states. And it has money. It was founded by Peter Ackerman, who made his fortune at pre-bankruptcy Drexel Burnham Lambert, where he earned $165 million in 1988 after helping to finance the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco. Boosting the group’s prospects is a 2010 court ruling involving the organization Unity ’08, which tried to create a similar third-party bid during the last campaign. That decision allowed groups like Americans Elect to disregard the $2,500 limit on presidential campaign donations. Thus, it raised two-thirds of the $30 million needed to obtain ballot access largely thanks to the contributions of just 50-odd people giving at least $100,000 each.

This is enough to cause angst among those seeking the reelection of Barack Obama. Democrats suspect that Americans Elect, with its self-described appeal to the “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” part of the spectrum, will pull more votes from Obama than from the GOP nominee. And they can hardly be reassured by the anti-Obama pedigree of some of those behind Americans Elect, including pollster Douglas Schoen, a so-called “Fox News Democrat,” and Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, who famously dismissed Obama as an “elitist” after the 2008 primaries. Elliot Ackerman, the founder’s son, who is helping manage Americans Elect after several tours with the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, did nothing to assuage such concerns when I met with him and the group’s CEO, Kahlil Byrd. Someone, Ackerman said, recently challenged him by saying, “‘Think how much this would hurt President Obama if Hillary Clinton ran with Jon Huntsman.’” Ackerman’s boyish face broke into a grin. “Our reply was, ‘I don’t think that would hurt President Obama. I think that ticket will win.’”

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?”

What is needed, Ackerman said, is a new leader who is “able to govern in a manner that’s unhinged from the far left or far right of his party” and thus “encourage defections of Republicans and Democrats to come to solution-based governance.” If the run for president generates momentum, then the movement could spread to lower levels of office, predicted Byrd. “This is a vehicle that will be with us cycle after cycle,” he said.

The group’s leaders avoid suggesting nominees, but some of its self-disclosed financial backers are less coy. Gerald Blakeley, the former chairman of Boston real estate giant Cabot, Cabot & Forbes, told me he is a former Republican who voted for Obama but is sorely disappointed in him. Whom would he prefer? Michael Bloomberg. “I’m going to nominate him,” said Blakeley. “He is brilliant. He has run New York better than any mayor in history. My wife is a director of the Bloomberg Family Foundation; she knows him well and he is brilliant.” Unfortunately, he added, “There are people who are prejudiced against wealth. That is one of the things you’re up against.”

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.”

Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the November 17, 2011, issue of the magazine.