Hedge Funds, So-Called Centrists, and The 1% Candidate

There's a secretive effort by mega-rich Wall Street titans to place a presidential candidate on the ballot in November.

Think big money and Wall Street have too much influence over national politics? Not to worry: A third-party presidential candidate bankrolled by hedge funds will fix all of that.

Believe it or not, that's the pitch coming from a group called "Americans Elect." And some of America's top pundits are loving it. "What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what Drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life," gushed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman last year. Another columnist likened the effort to the democratic uprising in Egypt, while a third cheered on the challenge to "today's two-party tyranny."

Sure, it's time to shake up the two-party system. But what exactly is Americans Elect? The group is attempting to use state petition drives to win a spot on this year's presidential ballot. But who will be its candidate? That's apparently up to us -- sort of. The candidate will be chosen through the Internet, as citizen delegates weigh in on key issues and then nominate viable, qualified candidates. Sorry, Stephen Colbert, no joke candidates allowed.

That sounds fine -- but there's a catch. The group stipulates that the candidate must be a so-called "centrist," but if you look at the candidates the group is reportedly considering, this is just code for moderate Republican. Indeed, many of the people Americans Elect has floated as potential candidates -- Jon Huntsman, Chuck Hagel, and Lamar Alexander, for example -- happen to be Republicans who have failed to excite many actual Republican voters.

The Democrats whose names are floated include Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-independent who often votes as a Republican. According to the group's own rules, the group can overrule the choice of the Internet delegates. That doesn't sound much like democracy.

Who is putting up the cash to potentially run a second Republican presidential candidate? The project is "financed with some serious hedge-fund money," Friedman explained.

A secretive effort by mega-rich Wall Street titans to place a conservative presidential candidate on the ballot is a bold, game-changing act of political courage.

Indeed. Mega-investor Peter Ackerman put up some of the substantial funds required to get the project off the ground, and his son Elliot is the group's chief operating officer. Americans Elect isn't revealing much about where it gets the rest of its loot, nor does it have to, thanks to the nation's increasingly lax campaign finance rules. The group claims that such secrecy is necessary given the serious challenge they supposedly represent to the status quo.

That's right: A secretive effort by mega-rich Wall Street titans to place a conservative presidential candidate on the ballot is a bold, game-changing act of political courage. There's no reason why the American people should know who's paying for it.

At least some prominent media outlets aren't buying it. A Los Angeles Times editorial zinged the group for practicing "secrecy in the cause of openness." But the idea that what the country really needs is for the political system to move towards the "center" has long been a fixation among influential Washington journalists.

As the argument goes, the parties have retreated to their respective corners, making compromise all but impossible. But one could just as easily arrive at a different conclusion: that from the early 1990s the Democratic Party has embraced a Clintonian style of centrist "triangulation" that has moved their party to the right. The Republicans, meanwhile, have become more and more conservative as well. The space between the parties is shifting and shrinking, not growing.

The political system does need a jolt. But the center-right agenda Americans Elect covets shouldn't be the target for anyone seeking the middle ground.

The shady initiative's backers promise that we'll be hearing more from them very soon. Americans Elect may or may not be a factor in the 2012 presidential election. But don't be surprised if it is.

This column was distributed by OtherWords.