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The Third-Party Rail

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The flaw in this argument, as Schoen allows, is that the general election won’t be waged with generic candidates, but with actual, you know, human beings. And so the ultimate viability of the Americans Elect ticket will depend on the quality of the ticket it puts together. Over the past months, Byrd and his colleagues have been meeting quietly with prospective candidates. The names that have been floated are a screamingly predictable bunch of moderates from both parties: Lamar Alexander, Chuck Hagel, and Jon Huntsman from the Republican column; Evan Bayh, Joe ­Lieberman, and Bob Kerrey. Add to that Mike Bloomberg, plus a handful of business leaders such as Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and you get a sense, however imperfect, of where Americans Elect may be headed.

No wonder, then, that Obama’s reelection team has lately taken some hard shots at Americans Elect, with David Axelrod decrying it as an example of “Über-­democracy meets backroom bosses.” Though Schoen contends that his polling suggests that a unity ticket would draw equally from the vote totals of both sides, were most of the names above on the ­ticket—including the nominal Republicans, I would contend—the impact would likely fall more heavily on the incumbent.

But there exists a wholly different possibility: that rather than ending up with a mushy moderate at the top of its unity ticket, Americans Elect could find itself facing the prospect of backing Ron Paul. The libertarian Texas congressman has, please note, pointedly refused to rule out the notion of waging an independent bid. Although Paul has said he will not seek the Americans Elect nomination, there is nothing—beyond the requirement that he choose a non-Republican running mate—that would prohibit him from doing so. Indeed, on the group’s website, his name is consistently among the most heavily tracked by users.

For Americans Elect, a Paul candidacy would be a kind of nightmare scenario, and having spent some time following Paul during this primary season, I sympathize. If you close your eyes while listening to him—as he rattles on about the glories of Austrian economics, the danger of paper money, and the coming accrual of “dictatorial-type powers” by the federal government—the image that immediately fills your mind is that of an addled, geriatric berserker with bushels of hair growing out of his ears, sitting on a park bench, talking to the trees and the phantoms in his head, feeding stale bread to the squirrels.

Out of deference to his son, Rand, and the freshman senator’s own potential presidential aspirations, Ron Paul may decide to spare Americans Elect from having to endorse his brand of lunacy. But in his not-inconsiderable electoral appeal, there is still an important lesson for the group—and for the pool of wannabe independent candidates who might want to make use of the Americans Elect platform. That lesson, simply put, is that there is a great deal of anti-Establishment sentiment alive in the land at this moment. Some of it is conservative, some of it is liberal. (His calls for a halt to endless wars and legalizing drugs are a big part of why so many non-Republican college kids are Paulistas.) But mostly it is ardently populist and viscerally against the status quo in all its various guises.

A contest between two incarnations of the status quo is, of course, a decent definition of what an Obama-Romney general election will be: two smart, cool, and diffident candidates, each without a populist bone in his body—though both will try like crazy to pretend that’s not the case—offering nothing that will look to millions of voters like fundamental change. An independent candidate who can offer a real alternative to them, stylistically and temperamentally as well as substantively, could be a genuine game-changer in 2012. If Kahlil Byrd and his pals have any sense, they should lose the phone numbers of Joe Lieberman and his ilk, and start looking for someone like that.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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