As the horror show drones on in Washington, D.C., California consultant Mike Arno and some of his friends from back East are offering a "Mr Smith" remake, slickly packaged for the Internet Age.
These operatives and donors are promoting a concept intended to serve as antidote to counter our dysfunctional system in the form of a nonprofit political organization with the suitably nonpartisan name Americans Elect.
They hope to offer voters a centrist alternative to Barack Obama and whoever the Republican presidential nominee might be.
As told on their website, here's what they're promising: "The first-ever open presidential nominating process. No special interests. No agendas. No partisanship."
They pledge "a greater voice for all Americans, no matter their party. Every registered voter can be a delegate. Any constitutionally eligible citizen can be a candidate."
"We're using the Internet to give every single voter – Democrat, Republican or independent – the power to nominate a presidential ticket in 2012.
"The people will choose the issues. The people will choose the candidates. And in a secure, online convention next June, the people will make history by putting their choice on the ballot in every state."
Sounds great. No less an oracle than the New York Times' Thomas L. Friedman wrote about it glowingly on Sunday:
"What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life – remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in. Watch out."
It's all so shiny and new. But before you enlist, ask a few questions. Who will be Americans Elect's candidate? Who are the money people behind it?
The out-front spokespeople don't know or won't say who the likely candidates are. Most troubling, funders are not public.
Arno and three other Americans Elect leaders described their effort in a phone call this week. Arno runs one of the nation's premier signature-gathering companies, and has qualified scores of propositions in this and other states, generally on the conservative side.
In this campaign, Arno was hired to obtain ballot access for the Americans Elect candidate, to be named later. Access requirements vary by state. In California, he needed to gather signatures of 10 percent of the registered voters.
Today, Arno will start submitting to county registrars of voters more than 1.6 million signatures. Arno's signature gatherers received $1.25 to $2 per signature. At that rate, the petition drive cost $2 million-plus, though who funded it is not publicly available.
Americans Elect lists its board of advisers. Presumably, the advisers put money into it, though no one says how much any donor has given.
"Donors who chose to disclose are free to do so," said one of the effort's leaders, Elliot Ackerman.
A decorated military veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ackerman glibly says he got involved to spread democracy in the United States. His father is Peter Ackerman, a wealthy investor, a director of the Council on Foreign Relations, and apparently a funder.
Another one on the call was Boston attorney Daniel B. Winslow. Winslow said fights in Washington have "gotten to the point of disgusting." No argument there.
Winslow has a long friendship with Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney, and served as his general counsel during Romney's term as Massachusetts governor.
Although money Winslow may have given to Americans Elect is not public, his donations to candidates are disclosed in Federal Election Commission records. Winslow donated $1,500 to Romney's presidential campaign last month.
Other members of the board of advisers have given to a variety of other candidates, including Obama. One adviser, Boston investor Gerald Blakeley, donated to President George W. Bush and, like many Bush donors, gave to Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. Nader helped Bush win the presidency by shaving votes from Bush's Democratic opponents.
Call me old-fashioned. But public disclosure of political activities is fundamental to a democracy. If you don't know who's paying the bills, you don't know the motivation. Political groups that hide the sources of their money generally have something to hide.
Given the lack of transparency, you have to wonder whether Americans Elect is a stalking horse for some candidate, either announced or contemplating a run. Arno, Winslow and Ackerman say they aren't doing anyone's bidding.
My guess is that whoever gets nominated – cleverly, the ticket must be split between a Republican and a Democrat – won't be a Jimmy Stewart and won't win. But with enough money, a third-party candidate could tip the 2012 election.
Given Americans Elect's pitch that it is offering an alternative to partisanship and politics, the beneficiary won't be the guy who has been promising hope and change.