Last fall, when I decided to dive headfirst into Americans Elect, an organization planning to offer a centrist presidential candidate, I explained that I believe the political process in this country is out of date and dysfunctional. At a time when Americans are being battered by long-term joblessness, a public school system that has been privatized for any student whose parent can afford the price of tuition, and the far-reaching impact of technology on our everyday lives, our federal and state elected officials are stuck spinning their wheels in the mud.
In the intervening months, that has not changed. But since last fall I learned two things.
First, as much as huge numbers of American voters say they want change, our political elites are deeply, deeply skeptical and risk averse. Between September and January, I personally and confidentially briefed present and former mayors, governors and U.S. senators who might be Americans Elect nominees. And out of the roughly 50 people we met with, most of them well-known political figures, Buddy Roemer is the only one who has had the courage to step up.
Every briefing went the same way. First, every elected official totally agreed that our political process is in acute crisis. Then, without exception, by the time the briefing was over, every official agreed that Americans Elect is a credible, well-thought-out, well-intentioned organization. But, finally, every potential candidate was left to face his or her own personal tolerance for professional risk. They could not help but note that the history of third presidential candidates in this country is not encouraging.
But, as the disclaimer in stock brokerage ads says, the past is not a predictor of the future. The objective need for change is evident. The electorate's demand for change is evident. As I discovered in the candidate briefings, our political elites see the need for change.
One of the most poignant moments during the candidate briefings came unexpectedly when a sitting U.S. senator looked down at his shoes and said, almost word for word, "You know, if I was running for re-election, I would vote against myself. The gridlock is devastating. We need to throw all the incumbents out."
So, there is still time for Americans Elect to blossom in the spring. Clearly, the protracted Republican nomination process has kept Americans Elect out of the spotlight. But the near universal dissatisfaction with the lack of choices in American politics is unabated. It is a long-term dynamic, not a momentary blip, and sooner or later that hunger will be satisfied.
The second thing I learned is that I have personal limits. I dived into Americans Elect notwithstanding that I am in my fourth year as the managing partner of the Los Angeles office of one of the largest law firms in the world, that I teach class at USC one night a week, and that I want to be at home in Los Angeles every night to be with my wife, who has lost her eyesight because of retinitis pigmentosa. Playing a major day-to-day role with an organization whose operational center is in Washington required at least one, and often two, red-eye flights a week to the East Coast. At the end of January I had to admit that, as strongly as I support what Americans Elect is doing, my colleagues, clients, students, wife and body needed me to come home.
Americans Elect is the most sophisticated, most ambitious political startup in this country in many years. To succeed, new ventures need adequate resources, unflagging determination and unending resilience. Americans Elect has all of that. Of course, like all new ventures, it has had to make tough choices. Raise the millions of dollars needed to gain ballot access in all 50 states, or provide full donor transparency? Build an online website secure enough to use for the nominating process or one more accessible to all comers? As the moving force behind the organization, Peter Ackerman, for whom I have a great deal of respect, often notes, Americans Elect is building the plane while it's already in the air. There will be plenty of time to revisit those decisions.
Fifty years ago, the only cars Americans could buy were made by Chrysler, Ford or General Motors, and a new generation of consumers didn't like those choices. Slowly, steadily, competitors like Datsun, Toyota, Volkswagen, Mercedes, BMW and Volvo, among others, gained a foothold in the marketplace and eventually forced the American companies to produce cars that people actually wanted to buy.
Americans Elect will field a presidential candidate this fall in all 50 states. And voters in search of something other than the traditional two choices will have a third set of political tires to kick. It's a historic step, and if Americans Elect offers a candidate who taps into the widespread, intense yearning for political change, it will be the dawn of a new day for the Democrats, the Republicans, and this country.