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Americans Elect and the Failure of Our Leadership Class

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The obituaries now being written about Americans Elect recycle the same post-mortem: The idea of a viable independent presidential candidate was a quixotic fantasy peddled by cockeyed fools.

Americans Elect fizzled, Ross Douthat says, because it "leaped to the (preposterous) conclusion that the country is crying out for a presidential candidate who mostly represents the interest and values" of "elites promot[ing] bipartisanship[.]"

Paul Krugman, Douthat's ideological antagonist, similarly dismissed Americans Elect as "a lavishly funded 'centrist' group that was supposed to provide an alternative to traditional political parties" but about which "[a]ctual voters couldn't care less."

True, Americans Elect was unable to attract a dynamic, high profile presidential candidate, but the conclusions stated in these political autopsies are wrong; they are but the schadenfreude of partisans.

Americans Elect failed this year for one central reason: The timidity and lack of vision of our feckless political leaders, who continue to sleep comfortably in their partisan cocoons.

One hundred years ago, in June 1912, Theodore Roosevelt bolted from the Republican Party and ran for president as a the leader of the nascent Progressive Party. He did so, acting out of "courage and loyalty" to his convictions, energized by his twin beliefs that the "boss-ridden and privilege-controlled" GOP stole his bid for re-nomination and abandoned reforms needed to remedy the country's long-standing problems.

"The great bulk of my wealthy and educated friends regard me as a dangerous crank," Roosevelt acknowledged at the outset of his third party campaign. "But all this is of little permanent consequence. It is a fight that must be made, and it is worth making."

Riding a popular wave of support, Roosevelt ultimately captured 27.4% of the vote, vanquishing the Republican nominee, the incumbent president, William Howard Taft, who received only 23.2%. Roosevelt's electoral performance would have been even stronger had not the campaign's ultimate victor, Woodrow Wilson, co-opted Roosevelt's progressive ideals and had not a fourth candidate, socialist Eugene Debbs, managed to win another 6% of the vote.

Many of the reforms championed by Roosevelt during his Bull Moose campaign -- minimum wages, work place safety, direct presidential primaries, the direct election of senators, social security, the prohibition of child labor and the repudiation of sex discrimination -- eventually became law of the land.

Where is our Roosevelt today? For that matter, where is our Ross Perot, who received 19% of the vote when he ran as independent candidate in 1992? Perot was a deeply flawed candidate, but at least he had the gumption to step forward and challenge the orthodoxies and dysfunctions of our major parties.

Time and again, Democrats and Republicans have proven themselves incapable of governing and solving the fiscal and other problems that threaten to tear us asunder. But our "leaders" whistle past the graveyard.

It is now de rigueur to say is that any independent campaign was doomed from the start to be an embarrassment; therefore, all rational actors simply declined to enter the presidential stage.

This conventional wisdom, however, is undermined by the fact, Americans Elect was on its way to securing ballot access in all 50 states, thereby eliminating logistical difficulties that have historically plagued independent candidates.

More fundamentally, reams of polling data have practically screamed: This year is like no other! There has never been a hospitable political environment in which an independent presidential candidate would be more likely to flourish.

As I explained in this lengthy research paper, a well-funded, respected independent candidate could have won at least 20% of the vote this year and forced the major party candidates to engage in honest dialogue about the predicaments in which we now find ourselves.

Never in the modern era have we been more politically alienated and disgruntled. The popularity of the major parties has plummeted. Both President Obama and Mitt Romney suffer from extraordinary electoral weaknesses.

We are in the midst of what feels like an existential crisis to many Americans, and neither party has proposed systemic reforms that would effectively combat our deep-seated fears and anxieties. Surveys show that voters long for honest and effective compromises brokered by a fearless soul willing to stand apart, willing to alienate his or her constituencies for the larger good, willing to sacrifice political kinship on the altar of patriotic need.

Yes, we cry out for someone like Teddy Roosevelt who, during his presidency and through the sheer force of his exuberant personality, effectively mediated disputes between warring factions in his own Republican Party; in so doing, he thrust the nation on an upward trajectory.

This year, the calls for true leadership have gone unheeded.

And the cognoscenti so dismissive of American Elects' efforts merely smirk, mocking the truth many of us consider self-evident: Our partisan duopoly continues to fail us.

Why didn't a viable, independent candidate announce himself or herself this year?

This silence was not due to a lack of popular demand. Instead, our dysfunctional political system has not yet produced a courageous and visionary leader who will rise to meet the challenges of the day.

As another election year passes, as our problems mount, we continue to await his or her arrival.