Vox's Dylan Matthews had questions about Politico co-founder Jim VandeHei's proposal for a new Innovation Party. VandeHei had answers. In bold are Matthews's original questions, followed by VandeHei's emailed answers.
Dylan Matthews: 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?
Jim VandeHei: I never proposed Mark Zuckerberg for president. I tossed out the idea of Zuckerberg (or Sheryl Sandberg) as examples of people who could head a party or a movement. They certainly have the money, fame, and, most importantly, the network to help overcome the enormous barriers to entry for any independent or third-party movement.
DM: 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?
JV: I agree the odds are stacked in powerful ways against any third-party success. But you answered your own question by pointing out that new parties are usually born by the destruction of others. This is a moment of great unease, change, and volatility in economics, technology, and politics. (Last time I checked, Trump was tearing apart the Republican Party). To me, it's worth considering if now — given how technology has reduced the barrier to voter connection and sole reliance on money to win — is the right moment to consider a third alternative. Clearly you disagree.
DM: 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?
JV: It would take the perfect candidate at the perfect time to win an electoral majority. And, yes, this is the only path to victory, given our electoral process. Surely, you are not arguing that Ross Perot was such a superior political athlete that no one in America could do far better. The guy captured 20 percent of the vote despite saying and doing some loony things once he hit his stride. The right candidate could create an intimate relationship with tens of millions of voters on social media and definitely outdo Perot. Your broader point is correct, though: The candidate would need to do so much better that they win an Electoral College majority outright.
DM: 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?
JV: You are correct: Republicans would be virtually certain to pick the Republican nominee under this scenario. But, Trump is virtually certain to be that Republican nominee. It's no secret this House is not loaded with Trump fans. It's loaded with Paul Ryan fans. My personal view is that Trump's views are dangerous enough that now is the time to at least debate alternatives.
DM: 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?
JV: See above answer, with one point of clarification: My ideal outcome would be the very long-shot hope of the independent or third-party candidate prevailing.
DM: 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?
JV: Bloomberg chose not to run because he concluded a pro-big-banks billionaire could not win an Electoral College majority. He also shares most of Hillary Clinton's views and calculated he could never beat her. I agree with his assessment that a superrich New Yorker isn't what the public is pining for right now. The ideal candidate would need to be an outsider who can tap into the populist mood of voters. I offered some stylistic and strategic dimensions to consider. I also wondered whether Bloomberg could be persuaded to help underwrite the movement, much like he does the anti-gun effort.
DM: 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?
JV: See above.
DM: 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?
JV: I feel this question is redundant. Most people hate politics. They should. It has been a long time since someone outside of the two parties has offered a compelling reason to rethink that hatred. You might be right that people who don't vote will never vote. I just think you are wrong. I know many people who sit out elections but are the first to volunteer at school or shovel an elderly neighbor's driveway. I refuse to believe that if someone came along with the right personality and right message — and compelled people to think differently about the changing world before us — that some non-voters couldn't be persuaded to vote.
DM: 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?
JV: This is a huge problem, of course. It is very, very late to make a run, especially as an organized party. I do believe the right movement, harnessed to social media, especially if headed by someone with social fame (even if they are not the candidate per se), could get on enough ballots to win. I would argue that even a movement that loses is better than none at all.
DM: 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?
JV: I don't think you read my column with any precision on this one. I simply suggested forcing the rich to give up their benefits, which is hardly controversial or even consequential. My point was the system is rigged for the rich. Look at the things wealthy people can do legally to evade taxes. Look at corporate welfare, and who benefits. I was making a stylistic and substantive argument that swing voters or non-voters won't even listen unless you attack this disparity.
DM: 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?
JV: I would be careful about reading too much into studies of voter habits right now. Did you anticipate Republican voters would elect an anti-trade, pro-status-quo-on-entitlements Democrat as their nominee? Did you predict a 74-year-old man would clobber Hillary Clinton among young women? There is extreme volatility in politics and I believe most eligible voters are willing to consider something unique or different.
DM: 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?
JV: Your question is tendentious. Do you disagree that we will live for many years to come with the constant threat of terror attacks here and elsewhere that could profoundly disrupt the world and potentially our lives? I think Americans are clear-eyed enough to have this debate.
DM: 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?
JV: You are right: Our system of divided government and polarized politics is working wonderfully! Come on. We have an extremely muscular presidency and political patterns that need to change. I would argue a president outside of two parties could find more common ground on terrorism, tax reform, education, entitlements, and immigration. You clearly prefer the status quo. I do love your optimistic projection that there could be 10 Innovation Party senators. That would help.
DM: 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 about33,000 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?
JV: We are assassinating terrorists in multiple countries at any moment. Ask your friends in Paris, Brussels, and New York if they feel that a war that was started more than 10 years ago has come to an end. Ask the military and those deployed to the Middle East if they feel at war. Ask yourself if ISIS is retreating and receding and stability will return to Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
It would be naive to think this isn't a war that get worse before it ends, if it ever does. Clearly, the war on terror does not approximate previous world wars in terms of casualties, but it's only just begun. None of us know what's next. Debating how we guard against it, authorize it, protect civil liberties during it, seems worthy. That is why military expertise strikes me as very important.
DM: 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?
JV: This is another weird question. You are anti-volunteering? Again, my simple point is that this country desperately needs something that can create some common purpose. Improving the VA is a perfect place to start. It would be great if a group of technologists simply built this app on its own. But it's my experience that people usually need to be inspired or incentivized to do something consequential without obvious, immediate reward.
DM: 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?
JV: You could extend the ban on lobbying by former lawmakers and tighten the loophole that allows them to "advise companies," which is a clever way to leverage their name and access to former members and staff to help lobbyists and big companies game the system. Not long ago, most lawmakers left Washington after serving. Now, many simply stay and become millionaires off the system. I get that there are obstacles to an outright ban in perpetuity, but there is more we can do. The lawmakers-turned-lobbyists can rest easy, knowing they have you on their side.