Why a Real Independent Candidate Is Urgently Needed
Last weekend’s nomination of Gary Johnson as the Libertarian Party candidate for president and this week’s unveiling of writer David French as the potential “Never Trump” candidate have added fuel to the discussion of whether a credible independent candidate will emerge in this year’s presidential contest. If these are the only alternatives to the major party candidates, it will be a travesty for the American people.
While these events appear to bring to a close a storyline that’s been evolving for months – from Mitt Romney’s apparent attempts to manufacture a “real” conservative option to Jim VandeHei’s controversial but insightful op-ed in the Wall Street Journal to Donald Trump’s own clumsy effort to goad Bernie Sanders into running as an independent – they actually fall far short of what this moment in history demands. A genuine broad-based independent candidacy is not merely a wistful idea. It is an urgent national necessity.
There is a crisis of legitimacy threatening the 2016 election. As the primary process wraps up, it appears that the electorate will be offered the choice between two candidates who have the highest unfavorability ratings in the history of American presidential elections. With the middle class under siege from stagnant wages and rising costs of living, our entitlement programs on an unsustainable path, and systemic corruption infecting our politics, a majority of Americans are shaking their heads in disbelief that these are our only choices.
This crisis of legitimacy isn’t confined to the presidential election. Grassroots Americans are challenging the competence, legitimacy, and performance of its governing elite. Some three-fourths of the American people believe that the government in Washington no longer operates with the consent of the governed. There is no way that the current status quo establishment, which did not even perceive the gathering storm before it arrived, can reform, revive, and restore the country. As VandeHei wrote, “Only an outside force can knock Washington out of its governing rut – and the presidency is the only place with the power to do it.”
Our political discourse at this critical juncture is being overwhelmed by a blind national media drowning the country with conventional wisdom. Which explains why VandeHei’s piece was met with such hostility. The heart of his message, which is hard to challenge, is that only a candidacy outside the duopoly will be able to be a positive disruptive force. To a great degree his statement reflects the stunning finding that two-thirds of Americans who see a battle not between Democrats and Republicans but between Mainstream American and the Political Ruling Elites.
The vast majority of Americans desperately want this. In recent years, survey after survey has shown that a large majority believe this country’s future is in jeopardy. Indeed, two-thirds of American voters agree that the nation is in decline. Three-fifths (including an overwhelming majority of American millennials) believe our children and grandchildren will not be as prosperous or blessed as the current generation. That sad belief constitutes the undoing of the sacred social contract that is at the very foundation of the American Idea. A solid majority of voters now believe that working hard and playing by the rules may not be enough to succeed in our country today. That fear is the death rattle of the American Dream.
Eighty percent of Americans also believe that an alliance of politicians, media pundits, lobbyists, and interest groups runs the country for their own gain at the expense of the American people. Is it any wonder that only one in four citizens of our country believe that politicians care about people like them or that almost two-thirds believe that the old way of doing things no longer works and that we need radical change.
With her baggage of scandals, deep questions about her honesty and her positioning as the candidate of her party’s elite, Hillary Clinton clearly is not the “change” candidate they are seeking. Millions of Americans, who would like to see a woman elevated to the highest office in the land, are saddened that they don’t have a less damaged candidate for their aspirations. For many voters a 74-year-old socialist who is anti-establishment and attacks a rigged and corrupt system is the alternative.
For millions more, Donald Trump is the answer. A candidate who rhetorically wants to blow up the entire system -- in their minds he is the ultimate protest vote, someone who will take control from the Washington elite and put America back on the right path. For others, who are caught in the economic trap of declining real wages, dwindling retirement savings, and lost opportunity, Trump represents a lottery ticket – the chance, albeit a small one, that the future will be brighter.
But for legions of other voters, including a high percentage of Republicans, Donald Trump’s election is not the answer. For these voters Trump is a deeply flawed vessel for their frustrations and lacking the temperament to be president. These voters see Trump as someone whose reaction is to strike back at any criticism, has a tendency to ignore facts and logic, has no philosophical center, and has misogynistic tendencies and a whole list of other flaws that make him ill-prepared to lead our country.
Whether they support Trump or not, there is a larger factor that is being ignored -- the obvious limitations of a presidential nominee who relied on the Republican brand, Republicans voters, Republican ballot access, and is now moving to take over the Republican Party financial apparatus in an effort to raise $1 billion for his campaign. If Trump were elected, he would go to Washington, D.C., as a Republican, indebted to his party, and would immediately be branded an enemy by the Democrats. We would face four more years of suspicion, attacks, and political gamesmanship. What wouldn’t see is any improvement in the lives of Americans.
Consider that our last three presidents, all gifted politicians in their own ways and who were each elected to two terms. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all in their own ways presented themselves as presidents who could unite the country. But they were unsuccessful, and partisanship is worse today than even at the height of the Clinton impeachment. Their party labels dragged them down the same way Trump’s would.
So where are we? We have reached the stage in this campaign where we are faced with two presumptive nominees about whom anywhere from 56 percent to 67 percent of the people say they cannot support. How can we have an election that confers legitimacy to a president-elect that a solid majority of Americans reject? If the only choice the American people have in November is heralded as “the lesser of two evils,” for far too many Americans the lesser of two evils is still evil.
The American people deserve a real alternative to the presumed nominees of the duopoly. This does not mean another candidacy, like Johnson or French, simply splintering off from one of the major parties.
It also doesn’t mean a “none of the above” protest third party. What we need is a new, real independent candidacy that offers a path apart from the establishment Democratic and Republican parties – a movement that can both represent the rightful discontent of the electorate while offering a new common-sense agenda for uniting our country, reinvigorating the promise of America, and revitalizing the efficacy and competence of our government. This is the only realistic way to break the gridlock in Washington.
Today’s zero-sum approach to politics -- “if it’s good for the Democrats it has to be bad for Republicans” and vice-versa -- is a dead end and does a grave disservice to our nation. Only a new political movement can break this cycle of political insanity. Only a new movement, which offers not a singular savior but a candidacy around which the American people can rally, will be able to start the process of healing our country. Only a new movement that empowers Americans from every segment of society to bring a new energy and sensibility to our politics will allow us to chart a course that lifts up every American who is willing to work for the American Dream. It would be more than a single candidate. It would be a ticket of partners and a leadership team driven by a broad movement of grassroots supporters.
A vote for this movement would not be a protest vote, but rather an affirmative vote for real change. It is a vote that could draw not only independents but unhappy Democrats and Republicans as well into a new majority movement.
This isn’t a whimsical fantasy. At this moment in 1992, Ross Perot was leading the race against Bush and Clinton in states with over 400 electoral votes, even though it crashed when he precipitously withdrew from the race (only to reenter later).
Compared to 2016, the discontent in America in 1992 was child’s play. A real candidacy would begin the race with the quarter of the electorate that does not wish to vote for either major party nominee. A candidacy that focused on reforming our governance by rooting out corruption and cronyism, solving our many problems instead of perpetuating them for partisan gain, and that committed to take the “for sale” sign off our government would have broad appeal. Indeed, recent polls have shown that not only is a large majority dissatisfied with the likely choices for president, but a majority would favor and would consider voting for a real independent candidate.
In the new paradigm year of 2016, such an independent candidacy could be a viable and potentially winning effort.
Who can make this happen? Those of you who are reading and agree with this essay. Those who could help fund an effort both to secure ballot access and to publicly inform and give exposure for this effort to the millions of Americans who wait in hope. Those who could join the effort to secure the necessary signatures. Those who would be willing to give their time and energy to bringing a campaign for such a candidacy to light. And the final and most important: an American or two who are in a credible position to step forward -- as a candidate or a ticket -- in service to the cause of America.