The winner of the presidential election this year will probably be a Republican or a Democrat. But widespread disgust with both parties—and with America's whole political establishment—could make a third-party candidate as influential as Ralph Nader was in 2000 or Ross Perot was in 1992.
Buddy Roemer hopes to be the chosen china-breaker—and he's got the maverick credentials to pull it off. After graduating from Harvard and Harvard Business School, Roemer served eight years in Congress in the 1980s as a Louisiana Democrat. Then he spent four years as Louisiana's governor. He switched to Republican when running for re-election in 1991, but lost. Since then, Roemer has started two companies and a bank in his home state. Last year, the 68-year-old announced his candidacy for president as a Republican, but after the networks refused to include him in their televised GOP debates, he switched to independent. He's hoping to be the nominee of AmericansElect, a new online platform for third-party candidates.
Roemer decries the role of money in politics and has pledged to accept no donations greater than $100, while shunning money from political-action committees, known as PACs. I spoke with him recently in New York City. Here are some excerpts:
A lot of Americans know something's wrong with our political system, but they're not sure what. Can you explain in simple terms what you think is wrong?
It's the money. Money can buy you a ticket to a movie. Money can buy you an automobile. But money can't buy a good idea. We now have a political system that is addicted to money and doesn't have room for good ideas.
Today there's no cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. No conversation. The force that drives them apart is special-interest money. The addiction to money has gotten deeper since I was in Congress in the '80s. It keeps you from listening. The party caucuses are closed now. That's because it's not about ideas anymore, it's about raising money.
How do you fix it?
By not allowing registered lobbysists to participate in fundraisers. I would have a 48-hour reporting requirement for donations, instead of 120 days. It's the age of the Internet, right? Let's get that done. I'd bring all contributions down to individual contribution levels. I would eliminate "super PACs." I think they're clearly illegal. The Supreme Ccourt said there can be no coordination or association between third-party givers and the candidate, but come on. You don't think there's any association? I would have criminal penalties for violation of the law. That's my short-term fix.
Then while president, I would make it my top priority to pass a constitutional amendment that would ask, "Can we have a better republic?" I'm not sure yet what might be in it, which is why I'd have a broad coalition of Americans help me figure out how to increase free speech while putting broad limits on political contributions. Corruption is the biggest threat to the republic.
A lot of people favor those kinds of reforms. Are they plausible, given the realities of politics?
It takes a president. It can't be done by a party or a governor or a congressman. Only a president can make this an issue. If I were on the stage with Romney, Obama, and the rest, I'd say to the American people, "Do you like the way things are being run? Do you like GE making $14 billion and paying no income tax? If you like it that way then keep doing what you're doing. If you don't like it, then stand with me."
The reason I haven't done better so far is one of two things. Either my message is the wrong message, or people haven't heard me. And so far I think I'm the sound of a tree falling in the forest.
Rick Perry had one compelling idea right before he left the presidential race: a part-time Congress. What do you think of that?
I love it. It's not a bad idea. But I'm going to need Congress. I'm going to need their undivided attention because I've got six or seven big things that need to get done: tax reform, banking reform, energy reform. Changing the tax system so we can get it on a postcard. A 17 percent corporate tax rate. It's going to take a couple of years to get the code cleaned up with no exemptions and deductions.
A lot of people back reforms like those. Why is it so hard to do?
It's not! I did it as governor. It's so hard in Washington because nobody talks to each other. Take the money out of the system and you'll be amazed.
One of the big problems Washington hasn't been able to solve is what to do about the national debt. What would you do?
You need entitlement reform. For one thing, I'd raise the Social Security retirement age by one month a year for 24 years. If we did that, we wouldn't have to raise Social Security taxes or cut benefits. I like some of Paul Ryan's ideas for Medicare reform. There would be no ethanol subsidies. No oil subsidies. No housing subsidies. Everybody is going to make a sacrifice and give a little.
Would you cut the mortgage interest deduction? A lot of people count on that.
I'd eliminate that. It might take three years, or maybe five, but within five years you could have the plan done.
How would you convince voters to go for that?
Well, marginal tax rates would be cut in half, so everybody would get a lower tax bill. Look, everybody's going to have to get a scratch pad and figure it out. How it affects you. But I'm not asking too much of any one person. Some people's taxes will go up, some will go down, but on balance we'll be at an 18 percent tax rate. And everybody will pay their fair share.
Also, you'd add something in: fairness. What's that worth to you? Simplicity. You won't have to hire a lawyer or a tax accountant. Add the fact that no American would escape his or her share of the responsibility.
When I talk to people in the business community, I often ask, "How many decisions do you make that are tax decisions?" Any number above one is too many. Businesses ought to do what's best, not what the tax system says they should do.
Among other things, you run a bank. What would you do about the banking industry? What went wrong there?
They got greedy. When a guy starts making a $10 million salary, what is his goal? Safer banking? Or bigger banking? It's bigger banking. That's why the demise of the Glass–Steagall Act [in 1999] was the seminal point of our economic collapse. Banking requires a traffic light and some broad rules closely followed. Like a speed limit on the highway. What worked in 1938 and worked in 1988 ought to work now.
The banks say size is important. No it isn't. Now, what's important is being fast, focused, flexible, and friendly. Size has nothing to do with it. Banks form alliances all the time.
What would you do about all the new Dodd-Frank rules?
My preference would be to start over. I would propose a start-over document that would take Glass-Steagall back into account and increase capital ratios as banks grow. I would require banks to be transparent and fully disclosed. We still have 7,000 banks, so I would let the market work. I wouldn't regulate bank size.
Bank customers need more choice. At my bank, which is very profitable, customers get treated right. It's good business.
What would you do about the healthcare system and Obamacare?
There are two words that describe the main problem with our medical system: too costly. Obama didn't touch that at all. Give Obamacare some credit. We learned some things about allowing coverage of younger people, and coverage of pre-existing conditions. But we could lower healthcare costs by 10 percent or 15 percent with tort reform alone.
I like Paul Ryan's ideas on choice and competition. My plan would work like that but without vouchers, per se. I would take away the protection from competition that insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies have. I like co-pay provisions in general. There is no such thing as a free lunch, but there ought to be an available lunch. So there ought to be some co-pay involved with Medicare, according to your ability to pay. If we could add choice it would push costs down. I wouldn't start with that, though. I'd start with raising the age of eligibility and with systemic reform.
Do voters need to adjust their expectations of what the government can do for them?
It takes more responsibility to live in a free country. Let me quote Thomas Jefferson: Any nation that expects to be both free and ignorant expects what never was and never will be. It's a fast world. We must be those four things--fast, focused, flexible, friendly. We need fewer spectators and more participants. One of the methods of my madness is to get 3 million people involved in politics for the first time, each donating $100 to my campaign. That's why I don't accept PAC money. Let's start a revolution this way. Otherwise we're going to elect Romney or Obama and get more of the same, with marginal differences.
We're a nation at risk. Debt and indebtedness own this system. I cannot do this by myself, but if the other politicians see an army coming, they will begin to listen. And maybe they will take up these issues.
You're lining yourself up with AmericansElect, the new online platform that's pushing for a third-party candidate….
I'm a civil rights liberal and a business conservative. The Democratic Party is distasteful to me on one of those issues, the Republican Party is unaccountable on the other. So I'm still trying to find a place.
What about the Tea Party? Not your cup of tea?
The Tea Party is looking at me closely, but they're put off by the way I go visit Occupy Wall Street. But they smell what's happening. They all smell it. Right now we need a nose. Then we'll need feet. Then we'll need votes. But if you smell it, call me or get on my website.
Why are you running? I mean really running. Not the altruistic reasons.
I've got three grandkids: Adeline, Charles, and Owen. They're not going to have the opportunity that I'm having. This is something I know. Corruption, I've fought that before. These other guys haven't fought it. I come from Louisiana. I've battled this. I've put people in jail. I've stood up to the big money, to oil money. I'm beyond ego. I don't need a job. I've done well. I think the country's in trouble, due to debt and indebtedness. It's going to take a president free to lead. So I start with the money.
What will you do if you don't win?
I'm prepared to be president, but I'm also prepared not to be president. Here's my test: me or better. Let's elect somebody who's me or better. And I'm not asking people to vote for me yet. I'm asking them to help me get on the stage with the party candidates and let's talk about America. You'll be better informed, you'll have more choices, and you'll feel like you picked the next president. Help me get on the stage.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success, to be published in May. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman