Jim VandeHei, late of Politico, has a very original idea: What if — wait for it — a third-party candidate ran for president? Not just any third-party candidate, mind you. The candidate would run under the mantle of the Innovation Party ("Who is against innovation?" VandeHei asks); they would preferably be a C-suite executive at the Facebook corporation (VandeHei suggests Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg).
The logic is simple: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders's success suggests that Americans want a political outsider willing to challenge the establishment. But Trump's "vulgar approach to politics" and "Sanders-style socialism" are, VandeHei concludes, "terrible political and governing paradigms." So why not enlist a political outsider with better ideas? VandeHei is sort of vague on what those ideas are, but they definitely involve means-testing Social Security and Medicare and "exploiting the fear factor" by scare-mongering about terrorism.
Now, VandeHei co-founded Politico, one of America's premier publications for political insiders, and edited it for nine years, so obviously one has to assume he knows how American politics really works, at least a little bit. But with all due respect to his expertise, I have some questions:
- VandeHei suggests Mark Zuckerberg as a potential leader of the Innovation Party. Is VandeHei aware that Zuckerberg is 31 years old and thus constitutionally ineligible to run for president this year?
- Why does VandeHei think a third-party presidential candidate has any shot of winning a general election when none has since 1860, when the country was on the verge of civil war and the third-party in question arose only because one of the major parties collapsed?
- Specifically, why does he think a third party would have any shot of winning a majority of the electoral college? Ross Perot got nearly 20 percent of the vote in 1992 but zero (0) electoral votes. Why would VandeHei's Innovation Party do any better?
- Let's say the third-party candidate gets a popular vote plurality but doesn't win the electoral vote outright. Why does VandeHei think the House of Representatives would pick a third-party candidate?
- There wouldn't even be a regular vote of the House; the House would vote by delegation, and at the moment there are 33 states with majority Republican delegations, 14 with majority Democratic delegations, and three with split delegations. Why wouldn't a Republican win in that situation?
- Michael Bloomberg, who VandeHei suggests as a potential leading member of the new Innovation Party, flirted with a run this year. Fifty-nine percent of voters told the AP they would definitely not vote for him. A Morning Consult poll found that he'd lose to Trump and Hillary Clinton, 37 to 36 to 13, and to Trump and Sanders, 34 to 35 to 12. Why would a non-Bloomberg Innovation Party candidate do better?
- Bloomberg ultimately decided not to run because he concluded, "if I entered the race, I could not win. I believe I could win a number of diverse states — but not enough to win the 270 Electoral College votes necessary to win the presidency." Why is Bloomberg wrong? What does VandeHei know that Bloomberg doesn't?
- VandeHei argues that you can pull in the 40 percent of Americans who don't vote with a third party contender. What makes him think this? Turnout in 1992 was only 55.2 percent. In 2012, without a third-party contender, it was 54.9 percent. What's so special about the Innovation Party nominee that was missing in Ross Perot?
- Texas's deadline for independent candidates is May 9; candidates have to have 79,939 signatures from people who didn't vote in the March 1 primary for either party. Does VandeHei think the Innovation Party can form, pick a candidate, and get 79,939 signatures in less than two weeks? Does he think they can win without so much as competing in the second-biggest state in the union?
- Why does VandeHei think that cutting Social Security and Medicare is a winning message? It's true that means-testing proposals — phrased sympathetically — poll well. But other polls find that 71 percent of Americans oppose lowering benefits for workers making $60,000 or more, and that 58 percent of Americans oppose any cuts to Medicare or Social Security. George W. Bush's efforts to pass a form of means-testing called "progressive price indexing" failed despite controlling both houses of Congress. Why is this time different?
- The Innovation Party sounds like a typical Beltway centrist project: pro-entitlement cuts, hawkish, socially liberal, etc. Is VandeHei familiar with research from political scientists David Broockman and Doug Ahler showing that most self-identified moderate voters aren't actually that kind of centrist at all? People who want lots of government programs but also are skeptical of abortion and immigration are a more typical kind of moderate. Why would those people ever vote for the Innovation Party?
- VandeHei wants a candidate who can exploit voters' fears of terrorism. Donald Trump has found that vilifying Muslim Americans is a very effective way of doing that. Does VandeHei want to take a hint from Thurmond/Wallace and go full xenophobe in service of his fear-mongering plan?
- What does VandeHei imagine the Innovation Party president doing upon taking office? Why would a Republican or Democratic Congress ever pass his initiatives? Is VandeHei assuming that members of Congress would defect and form an Innovation Party caucus? Why would they do that? How would Congress function with three parties, especially if none of them has a majority? Suppose there are 45 Democratic, 45 Republican, and 10 Innovation Party senators. Wouldn't that give the Innovation Party a perverse amount of influence over who runs the Senate? Isn't that undemocratic?
- VandeHei declares, "Terrorism is today’s World War." Does VandeHei know how many people died in the World Wars? It's over 17 million for World War I, over 60 million for World War II. Does he know how many people die from terrorism? It was about 33,000 in 2014; only 3,503 Americans were killed between 1995 and 2014, and only 107 from 2005 to 2014. How is that in any sense comparable to the World Wars?
- VandeHei imagines the Innovation Party partnering with Silicon Valley to "create a 'National App' to match every kid who needs a mentor with a mentor, every person who wants to volunteer with someone or some group in need; every veteran with people and companies who want to reward his or her service with thanks, help or a job." What does doing this in app form accomplish that the VA can't currently? Why not just fund the VA and evidence-based mentoring programs? Why can't Silicon Valley create this weird app on its own without government input? Why would any kid in need of a mentor use it? Why encourage volunteering when there are millions of people out of work that the government could hire to do the tasks we apparently need volunteers for?
- VandeHei wants to "Mandate that lawmakers go home after serving instead of profiting off their service." Does he realize there's already a ban on lobbying for ex-congressmen and senators of at least a year, two in the case of senators? That this ban hasn't been effective because people just decline to register as lobbyists? How would VandeHei get around this without violating members of Congress's First Amendment rights to expression? Is he serious about mandating that members of Congress literally "go home"? Would he keep them under house arrest in their districts? Isn't that a habeas corpus violation?
Of course, Jim VandeHei is an experienced political professional who has spent decades in Washington presumably learning a lot about how politics works. Surely he's thought of all these questions and has persuasive answers, no?