12/29/2011 10:46 am ET Updated Feb 28, 2012

Early Summer 2012 and Americans Elect

A bit of history:

At the end of the second quarter of 1992, the economy began to recover from what had been a year and a half recession. But because the recovery was somewhat glacial and the citizenry did not feel better about economic conditions, President George H.W. Bush went into the general election at an insurmountable disadvantage. In May of that year, Ross Perot outpolled the president and the all-but-crowned Democratic nominee Bill Clinton. Despite the fact that he had withdrawn from the race and returned and had shown himself, in a variety of ways, as unfit to be president, Perot received nearly 20 percent of the vote. While polls showed citizen belief that the nation was on the wrong track, the depth and breadth of discontent that year was not even close to what it is today.

In May or June next year, the public will make its judgment about the state of the economy. If the unemployment rate is at least a percentage point lower than it is now and moving in a downward direction, President Obama will likely be re-elected. If, however, the economy continues to stagnate or worse and there is either no progress on the employment front or it has gotten worse, there is almost no chance that Obama can win. But it is not at all certain that the public will have faith that a Republican nominee, weighed down by the ideological baggage of the Tea Party and Congressional gridlock, could do any better.

The question is whether the citizenry might cast a vote for another choice.

Americans Elect is attempting to offer that choice.

The minimal conditions for such an effort to be successful are five:

• A deep feeling that the nation is on the wrong track.

• Disaffection with the two major parties and their candidates.

• A line on the ballot in every state.

• Adequate money to conduct a competitive campaign.

• Candidates for president and vice-president whom the public can feel are competent to fulfill the duties of those offices and who offer hope of something different than what has occurred over what will be then three and a half years (or nine and a half years).

If the economy is not in clear recovery mode, the first four of those conditions will be in place. It remains to be seen whether Americans Elect will be able to recruit potential nominees from both major parties that will be credible and appealing. Those nominees will also need to provide content beyond the empty concept of "centrism." Vision and a credible roadmap to achieve it have been sorely lacking in American politics and leadership. If the nominees of Americans Elect can provide both, they may be able to overcome the disappointment and disdain that now dominate citizens' attitudes to leadership, politics and government.

The conventional wisdom is that such an effort is doomed to failure, as all other such efforts in American history have been. That judgment may turn out to be correct.

But I believe that this time the conventional wisdom may turn out to be wrong, and the independent candidacies the Americans Elect online delegates select might win.

I base that judgment on the belief that if all five conditions for potential success are met and the economy is in no better shape, they may be seen to offer hope where there might be none to be had in either major political party's nominees.

I also base that judgment on personal experience.

In 1967, I wrote the blueprint for and, with the late Allard Lowenstein, organized what came to be known as the "Dump Johnson Movement." At that time, our effort was seen as quixotic, and the overwhelmingly body of "informed" opinion was that we couldn't beat an incumbent president in his own party.

When Sen. Eugene McCarthy announced his candidacy, he was unknown to 57 percent of the electorate. And when I took a long night's train ride to New Hampshire to coordinate the primary campaign a month before that state's first in the nation primary, McCarthy stood at two percent in the polls.

But I never had any doubt about our likely success. I knew the 1966 election, where the Democrats lost 47 seats in the House of Representatives and 750 seats in state legislatures, had been a negative referendum on the Johnson presidency. And I knew that if I were any street corner in America, the person on both my right and left viewed Johnson with distaste.*

It is, of course, much too early to judge the viability of Americans Elect's effort or whether the conditions will exist next May or June for its potential success. But, I, for one, take the effort seriously.

*A personal note. I am still proud of what we did in 1967-68, and I would do it again were conditions the same. But it is also true that the story of Lyndon Johnson is a tragic one. Had he not prosecuted and escalated American involvement in Vietnam, had he not disingenuously characterized what our country was doing there and had not the combination bitterly divided the nation, Johnson might have gone down as one of America's greatest presidents. His accomplishments in domestic policy in the year and a half after President Kennedy was assassinated and before he sent combat troops into Vietnam in May of 1965 were the equal of what Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in 13 years.