Demise of a centrist nominee dream

That pop you may or may not have heard the other day was the bursting pipedream of a centrist presidential candidate outside the establishment parties. The organizers of a group calling itself Americans Elect decided to close shop after failing to find anyone who would qualify to be its standard-bearer in November.

No one who met the group's eligibility requirements to become its presidential nominee was able to corral the threshold 10,000 endorsements needed from "delegates" in an online nationwide convention. The prospective candidate who came closest, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, was able to garner only 6,293 votes. Others who were urged to seek the endorsement, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, an early casualty of the 2012 Republican nomination fight, wanted no part of the exercise.


Americans Elect got the collective cold shoulder despite the fact that its organizers, including Peter Ackerman, an investment banker, and former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, were said to have raised $35 million for the project, had won a ballot position for the November election in 29 states, and were on course to qualify in the rest.

This lack of interest from presidential wannabes was surprising in one sense. Evidence of a public yearning for alternatives to the two established parties was clearly seen earlier in the emergence of the tea party movement.


But the indication that Americans Elect would by necessity be a centrist, moderate undertaking apparently was its undoing in this era of political extremism of the left and, particularly, the right. The very bylaws of Americans Elect required a commitment to bipartisanship that has practically become a dirty word in today's politics, at least as practiced in Congress.

One stipulation of the group in particular ran counter to political reality and any concept of good governing. That was its requirement that the presidential nominee select a member of the opposite establishment party as his or her running mate.

If one truly outstanding Republican and one similarly worthy Democrat could have been found willing to run as a team, the chances seemed far-fetched that they could agree on a platform that would appeal to enough voters from their old parties to win election. For all the disaffection the established parties have caused, they remain considerable players in grass-roots organization in most states.

Also, what if this nonpartisan ticket won? Would a Congress of establishment-party partisans follow its leadership? And if the president, drawn from one party, were to die, what guarantee would there be of policy continuity under his successor from the other party? The original constitutional process for selection -- in which the Electoral College winner was president and the runner-up was vice president -- was scrapped because of the danger to that continuity.

No problem existed in the first two elections, when the first two vote-getters -- Washington and Adams -- were of the same political faction, the Federalists. But when Adams was subsequently elected president, his runner-up was Jefferson, the leading Anti-Federalist. The Constitution was soon amended to provide for separate elections for the two offices, enhancing the likelihood of policy compatibility.

Although down through the years, presidents and their vice presidents have not always marched in lockstep, on succession the standbys have generally sought to adhere to the precepts of their predecessors. Indeed, in 1988, one of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush's strongest appeals was the perception that his election would be in effect a third term for the Ronald Reagan era.

Had Americans Elect carried on to the general election, there is also the same danger of a pernicious outcome posed by a third-party candidacy. In 2000, the presidential bid of Ralph Nader arguably siphoned off enough votes from Democrat Al Gore in certain states to make the election of Republican George W. Bush possible, with a decisive helping hand from the Supreme Court.

The emergence of a potent centrist party in the United States would be, at this time of flagrant partisanship, a development devoutly to be wished. However, the Americans Elect formula was an unrealistic answer.


Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is