That President Barack Obama faces enormous challenges in the upcoming presidential race is guaranteed. With a 9 percent unemployment rate, a threat from Europe of more to come, and an approval rating that has sunk more than one president’s bid for re-election, the odds of his winning a two-party contest have been slipping steadily. What, then, can a re-election-minded president do?
Answer: Shift to the left while silently encouraging a third “centrist” party to split the opposition. An article in the Sunday Boston Globe, if carefully read, gives us every reason to think this is now underway.
Americans Elect, the country’s newest political party, says it is going to hold a nominating convention online in which all registered voters are allowed to participate. Any bipartisan team--that is any Republican presidential candidate with a Democrat or an Independent as a vice-presidential team-mate (or vice versa)—is allowed to pursue its nomination.
On second thought, forget the vice-versa. American Elect will, if at all possible, select a middle-of-the road Republican presidential candidate. When Mark McKinnon, the media strategist for the group, was asked who the likely candidates might be, he ticked off Jon Huntsman (the former Obama-appointed ambassador now standing before the krieglights in Republican presidential debates), Republican Buddy Roemer, former governor of Louisiana, Republican Mitch Daniels (not likely), Nebraska’s Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican Colin Powell, Republican Condolezza Rice, and Joe Lieberman, an Independent who gathered in a plethora of Republican votes in his Connecticut re-election campaign. The Globe reporter was only able to fetch from McKinnon only one Democratic name, that of Evan Byah, the former Senator from Indiana who is hardly going to abandon his—and his father’s--political party after having served in office under its label for 25 years. Tom Brokaw’s name was also tossed about, just in case Americans want to be directly run by its TV anchors.
But could the American voter upset the apple cart and pick someone that does not fit Americans Elect’s centrist strategy? After all, the online primary will consist of a series of rounds in which the six teams that make it through the first round continue the competition until one team wins a majority of the vote. Could Herman Cain find a Tea Party Democrat to run with him, mobilize the country’s sizeable social conservative constituency, and grab the honors? Or, more likely, could Ralph Nader, or one of his green acolytes, occupy American Elects online campaign?
They might try, but neither would be allowed to win. The self-appointed committee set up to oversee the Americans Elect balloting can overturn any decision made by its voters if the selected candidates fail, in their eyes, to meet “criteria of demonstrated achievements based on qualifications of past presidents and vice-presidents.” In an interview with a Christian Science reporter, Elliott Ackerman, one of the groups big donors (who is also an investment firm director with ties to a potpourri of center-left organizations), frankly admitted they would find only “centrist” candidates acceptable. Good-bye Herman, Good-bye Ralph, Good-bye Michelle, Good-bye ……any of those candidates who don’t fit the centrist mold.
Of course, this clever little rule is downplayed by Americans Elect. The official line, pumped by Mark McKinnon, goes this way: “Think of all the people who believe they should be president, and who won’t have to run in the primaries or pay for ballot access. It’s a lot of people. I think some interesting people are going to show up.” Yes, interesting people acceptable to the friends of Kahill Byrd, the chief executive of Americans Elect. Byrd claims he is a Republican, even though he worked for President Obama’s very good friend, Deval Patrick, Massachusetts’ Democratic Governor. Is it at all plausible that Mr. Byrd is acting in direct violation of orders emanating from the White House?
Amazingly, Byrd says that his group has raised $22 million for their ballot access campaign. That kind of money does not come from small donations from millions of small-time Tea Partiers or Wall Street Occupiers. It comes out of those with deep pockets who prefer to remain entirely out of the public eye. Unlike all other political parties, American Elect says it does not need to report the names of the donors. Elliott Ackerman, the group’s chief operating officer, says that “some of the early donors, numbering several hundred, are hesitant to disclose their involvement.” Indeed. Most big donors feel the same way. That’s why we have campaign disclosure laws.
Note that it is Bill Clinton’s pollster, Douglas Schoen, who recently organized the survey of 6,000 likely voters in order to see how many would vote for a third party. That only a quarter of them say they would cast their ballot in that direction is hardly a reason not to move forward, if the purposes is to split the Republican vote.
The former president knows all the advantages of having a centrist third-party candidate in a presidential contest. When Ross Perot took 19 percent of the vote in 1992, Bill managed to slip into power with just 43 percent of the vote. No wonder Clinton’s pollster is working hand in glove with Americans Elect.
Of course, the Obama Administration has every right to attempt to split the opposition by running someone like its former ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, Jon Huntsman. David Axelrod is a shrewd political operator who is not to be condemned for a clever ruse. He and his allies need only to be “outed.”
That the Democrats are behind Americans Elect will be denied by Axelrod, the White House, and, of course, Bill Clinton, whose words of denial will repay especially close attention.. But two empirical tests might help get to the truth of the matter. 1) In the next Republican debate, someone needs to ask Jon Huntsman whether he will make a firm commitment not to run on the Americans Elect ballot. 2) Republicans in the House of Representatives need to pass a bill that makes it clear contributors to political parties such as Americans Elect must disclose their campaign contributions in the same way Republican and Democratic parties must. We can then wait and see what the Democratic leadership in the Senate does with that bill.
If Huntsman makes a Shermanesque denial and Obama signs a bipartisan bill requiring full disclosure, it will be hard to claim the Democrats have launched a stalking horse. Otherwise, Republicans better gear up for a well-financed three-party contest.