By Gregory B. Hladky
4:55 PM EST, February 7, 2012
A pack of rabid middle-of-the-roaders is lurking in the political underbrush, hoping to feast on the carcasses of our suicidally partisan Republican and Democratic national parties.
These "Americans Elect" dudes are attempting to create an Internet-based primary and nomination system to choose what they hope will be a centrist, non-partisan, third-party presidential candidate. They seriously believe the time has come when someone like that could take the presidency, and one of the names being floated is — wait for it — that of Connecticut's own Jumpin' Joe Lieberman.
The baseline of this independent dream is the bitter "screw-'em-all" disenchantment of big chunks of the American electorate. It may be the one sentiment common to both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall St. movements, and all the polls show record numbers of Americans unhappy with the dreary, impotent routines of their politics and government.
Lieberman, now in his final year in theU.S. Senate, has "indicated he will not be a candidate for any elective office in 2012," according to his deputy press secretary, Jeremy Kirkpatrick. At the same time, says Kirkpatrick, "Senator Lieberman is sympathetic to the efforts of such groups as Americans Elect because they are attempting to offer bipartisan alternatives to political polarization."
Of course, Lieberman has been known to change his position on lots of issues, and he's been both a vice presidential candidate and a presidential hopeful in the past. He also has $155,000 left in his own leadership PAC and is still raising money. Having already jumped from being a Democrat to an "Independent Democrat," the leap to Americans Elect wouldn't be that far at all.
Joe's problem here in his home state is that he's pissed off so many folks over the years that he might not be an ideal choice. "I think he's worse than 'more-of-the-same,'" says Mike DeRosa, co-chairman of Connecticut's Green Party. "I don't think he's really a viable candidate."
Wes Strong is one of the anti-establishment organizers of the Occupy Hartford movement. He has no use for the Democratic and Republican parties, but doesn't see Lieberman as any answer.
"Joe Lieberman is one of the problems we've had," he says. "These problems can't be solved by the politicians in Washington."
Other moderate, establishment pols being mentioned as potential Americans Elect candidates include Evan Bayh, Bob Kerrey, Lamar Alexander, Chuck Hagel, Jon Huntsman and Mike Bloomberg.
A CBS News exit poll of voters in last week's Florida Republican primary found that 38 percent weren't satisfied with any of the available candidates. A national survey commissioned in early January for Americans Elect reported that 66 percent of voters said it's important to have an independent presidential candidate on the ballot in 2012.
The Americans Elect campaign is relying on the Internet to choose its candidate. Spokeswoman Ileana Wachtel says more than 360,000 registered voters have already signed up on the group's website to vote in what amounts to an online nominating, primary and convention process. The initial field of candidates (proposed by the people who signed up) will be whittled down to six by June, when an online convention will be held to select from those candidates who've agreed to participate. In order to insure bipartisanship, the group's rules say each candidate must announce a running mate from another party.
All the polling and website numbers may well be accurate. Americans certainly have reason to be fed up with the bastards in both parties down in Washington. But there are plenty of skeptics who doubt an independent can actually win the presidency right now.
And they include some very dedicated third-party types.
Tom D'Amore is a former Connecticut Republican state chairman who managed Lowell P. Weicker Jr.'s successful independent campaign for governor in 1990 and became Weicker's chief of staff. He went on to advocate for and advise third-party campaigns around the country and is now working on an effort to get states to reform the Electoral College system, which he says acts as a huge roadblock to third-party presidential efforts.
"These are not kooks," D'Amore says of the Americans Elect folks. He believes the massive unhappiness among voters is something a third party could tap into, and he argues that what is needed is a national campaign similar to "the Connecticut model with Weicker."
The Weicker scenario, which Americans Elect supporters like former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and other members of the group's board seem to have bought into, involves finding an established politician that the mass of unhappy middle-of-the-road Americans can latch onto. All of the names being mentioned as possible candidates fit that exact pattern.
"The problem is there's no way in hell they'll be able to elect a president," says D'Amore. He argues that the present Electoral College system, with 48 of the 50 states having a winner-take-all approach, means a candidate has to take a majority of the popular vote in most states in order to get any electoral votes. For a third-party type, that means it's virtually impossible to get anywhere close to the 270 electoral votes needed to win.
D'Amore says his biggest fear concerning the Americans Elect campaign is that it could have just enough of an effect to deprive both major party candidates of a clear victory. The worst case result, according to D'Amore, would be if the election ended up being decided by Congress, which hasn't happened since the 19th Century.
DeRosa says the organizers of Americans Elect have a more down-to-earth problem: "I think it's going to be very difficult for them to get on the ballot in all 50 states."
A member of the Green Party's national ballot access committee, DeRosa is working like hell to get a ballot spot in all six New England states for his party's eventual presidential nominee.
DeRosa agrees that all the polls are finding enormous voter dissatisfaction with the two major parties. "It's a piece of evidence that people are looking for an alternative," he says.
According to Wachtel, the Americans Elect group has already managed to get on the ballot in 16 states including biggies like California, Michigan, Ohio, and Florida.
A lawyer working for Americans Elect was in contact with Connecticut elections officials last month about starting a petition drive to get the 7,500 verified signatures of registered voters needed to achieve a ballot spot in this state. (DeRosa says you need more than 12,500 signatures to be sure of qualifying because so many names are thrown out for various reasons.)
"I think we're going to do it," Wachtel says of the goal of a ballot spot in all 50 states.
"It's the perfect time for a third choice to emerge," Wachtel insists.
She points out that the primaries in both major parties tend to force candidates to play to the extremes in order to win their nominations, then have to scramble back to the center for the general election. Most political analysts agree that Republicans have to kowtow to far right-wing GOP primary voters, while Democrats must suck up to the lefties who tend to dominate Democratic presidential primary voting.
"A majority of people want a solutions-based leader… not someone pandering to the extremes of their party," Wachtel says.
That's not necessarily an argument that sways politically angry, disenchanted activists like those in the Occupy movement.
"I don't think the solution to the Republicans and the Democrats is a centrist party," says Strong. He argues that approach fails to get to the deep-set problems involving the concentration of wealth and corporate greed and power represented by Wall Street.
"I wouldn't see that as a solution," Strong says, "and I would hope other Occupy folks wouldn't see it as a solution."
Defenders of the major parties often label serious independent candidates as "spoilers" who simply suck votes away from either the Republican or Democrat, helping to elect someone a majority of people really didn't want.
"We have seen [a third party candidate] be a spoiler at different levels," says state Democratic Party Chair Nancy DiNardo. She says John Rowland (the guy who later resigned in disgrace and went to federal prison) may well have won the 1994 governor's race because it was a three-way contest.
DiNardo says she very much doubts Lieberman could be pursuaded to run a third-party candidacy, but reluctantly concedes he "could have an impact in Connecticut" if he were to be a candidate. She sounds far less worried about how much of a vote-vacuum other potential Americans Elect candidates might prove in this state.
DeRosa has an answer to the argument that people should vote for the "lesser of two evils" available from the Democrats and Republicans rather than allegedly wasting a vote on an independent candidate:
"My attitude is, if you elect the lesser of two evils, you still have evil."
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