Onetime Republican lawmaker Larry Pressler attempted to shake up the establishment in 2014, plotting a return to Capitol Hill nearly 20 years after leaving office.
Only this time, he decided to try his luck as an independent candidate.
Pressler’s comeback bid didn’t take. (Republican Mike Rounds claimed the seat vacated by retiring South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson.)
The experimental run, though humbling, also provided Pressler with a glimpse into the future.
“Our country really needs a disruptive innovation in politics … [and] it has to be centrist in nature,” he suggested. “We’re at a critical turning point.”
While he’s content to help stir up the next revolution, the septuagenarian strategist openly acknowledges that he’s too long in the tooth to lead it. And Pressler’s savvy enough to know that there’s no point in forcing the issue amid the current presidential craziness.
“An independent wouldn’t have a chance at this late stage,” said Pressler, who’s no fan of presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump.
But that doesn’t mean fellow visionaries can’t begin laying the groundwork for the 2020 campaign.
“Maybe we could have a new moderate party,” the self-described centrist said.
Getting there, Pressler concedes, will be no easy task.
“If there is going to be a third party, it really has to start early,” is one of the takeaways Pressler gleaned from his last electoral challenge. He documents the ups and downs of that transformative race in, “Senator Pressler: An Independent Mission to Save Our Democracy,” an originally self-published book that has since been re-issued by independent publisher Adducent.
Another important lesson he learned from venturing out on his own: would-be supporters tend to waver at the ballot box.
“A lot of your vote evaporates,” Pressler warned, asserting that so-called independents often buckle under pressure.
“The morphing independent, when he gets into the voting booth, he turns back into a Republican or a Democrat … or whatever he really is.”
Being taken seriously, rather than being written off as a “spoiler ," was important to Pressler — although he maintains that it did take some doing.
“I still had to define myself,” said Pressler, who, as a first-term senator, refused a $50,000 bribe during the FBI's "Abscam" sting more than 35 years ago.
Returning to the stump after being away for so long forced Pressler to educate voters about his mostly moderate values. Pressler said opposition researchers from across the political spectrum countered his grassroots efforts by sifting through legislative records in search of potential bombshells.
“The attacks on me went back to my old tabling votes in the Senate,” Pressler said of the exhaustive review of arcane procedural positions.
Getting ganged up on by establishment operatives was to be expected.
Being ignored by self-styled problem solvers took Pressler somewhat by surprise.
“There was no sign of help from national groups such as ‘No Labels’ and other similar organizations. These groups certainly talk a great deal about the need for a positive, nonpartisan campaign, but they were nowhere to be seen in terms of practical help,” he complained on social media.
Pressler confirmed that he is actively involved with various coalition-building efforts — The Centrist Project and ReFormers Caucus came up almost immediately — he believes could accomplish more cooperatively than they have individually.
“We’re all saying the same thing,” he said.
Pressler is done with repeating eerily familiar talking points.
Instead, he’s making it his mission to help field a competitive third-party candidate during the next presidential race.
By his calculation, the ideal candidate would likely need to invest hundreds of millions of their own money —$300 million-$400 million is Pressler’s back-of-the-envelope calculation — in order to keep up with the major parties.
He billed 2012 presidential hopeful former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and entrepreneur Steve Case as solid contenders in terms of financial security. Experience-wise, Pressler heaped praise on Maine’s Independent governor cum senator Angus King.
“He is the sort of guy who could do it,” Pressler said. “But we’d need to find the money somewhere.”
Convincing the electorate to quit treating slickly produced campaign spots as gospel is at least as important, if not more so in Pressler’s opinion, to the fundraising question.
“My pet peeve is the uneducated and apathetic voter: someone who determines how he will vote by sitting in an armchair with a beer in one hand and a TV remote in the other — listening uncritically to negative ads,” Pressler wrote in his book.
Indiscriminate acceptance, he charged, has helped fuel “the disastrous, issueless campaign of 2016.”
“In this campaign we really haven’t had a debate on the deficit,” Pressler said, denouncing what he perceives to be a lack of substantive discussion about national priorities ranging from superfluous defense spending to immigration reform.
“We’re just not talking about real issues.”
The next commander-in-chief, he counseled, must prepare to contend with a financial burden that’s been facilitated by both parties.
“The new president is going to face just a terrific fiscal crisis that nobody in the campaign is talking about,” he warned, blasting Republicans for force-feeding the war machine (“It seems like the military is the only thing that gets fully funded,” he said) and chiding Democrats for mismanaging entitlement programs.
“People on a minimum wage in our country are locked into a very low level of existence, and they don’t really have any hope. And I think that’s what Bernie Sanders is appealing to,” Pressler said of the booming populist movement.
Congress, he said, must do its part by returning to the practice of passing appropriations bills. But it must do realistically — meaning that revenue raisers, including modifications to the estate tax and top individual tax rate, should be discussed right alongside spending reductions.
“We’ve got to get beyond the simplicity of ‘no new taxes,’” Pressler said.
Plotting a way forward on immigration reform is another sore spot lawmakers need to smooth over ASAP.
“We’ve got to be inclusive and welcome immigrants. That has been the strength of our country,” Pressler said, dubbing the 11 million illegal immigrants being threatened with deportation by Trump as “part of our fabric.”
“I think we should keep the folks who are here, here,” he advised. “I know that there is no completely fair system, but we need them. We have plenty of jobs that are not being taken by anybody.”
Barring a road to Damascus-like reversal between now and November 8 by the prospective Republican standard-bearer, Pressler does not anticipate being able to side with Republicans this fall.
“If the present trend continues … I’ll probably end up voting for Hillary Clinton,” he said.
In the meantime, Pressler plans to continue refining his analysis of the “tragedies of the election of 2016” for inclusion in a book projected to debut shortly after Election Day. He’s simultaneously working on a separate tome delving into flagging U.S. relations with India and Pakistan.
The long game, however, is to put the two-party system out of its misery.
“It’s like a dam about to burst. The independents are out there,” Pressler said. “And this election shows that.”
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