Every few years, when Americans seem disappointed with the nominees of the two major political parties, talk begins about the need to form a third party. I confess that once I too had that idea. In 1996, when I wrote my book about the Democratic Party, I ended it with the following argument:
the fact is that in America…the Democratic Party as a whole has shifted to the Left, precisely at the moment when the Republican Party has shifted toward the Right. That means that the old political Center has eroded once and for all — a fact that has led many Americans to hope for the creation of a new political party of the Center, the kind that might be led by the likes of Bill Bradley, Colin Powell or Sam Nunn.
Much has changed since I wrote those words, including how I see the world today. I was right that the Democratic Party was beyond repair and in effect had become the equivalent of a European style social-democratic or socialist party in all but name. I called in my final paragraph for a party that represents post-Cold War America, that “stands for fiscal and personal responsibility, cultural conservatism, and a more limited and constrained social safety net.” That is still our requirement, now more than ever. But it is clear that such an outcome will come only from the ranks of the Republican Party, unless a time arises when conservatives will come to have a major influence in the Democratic ranks.
Now, the influential New York Times columnist, Thomas L. Friedman, has recently argued that indeed we need an alternative to the current two-party system. He believes neither party meets the bill for creating a sound American future. He more or less endorses what he calls a new “quiet political start-up that is now ready to show its hand, a viable, centrist, third presidential ticket, elected by an Internet convention,” which he says is “going to emerge in 2012.” He claims that it is being endorsed by an “impressive group of frustrated Democrats, Republicans and independents,” and is called Americans Elect. According to Friedman, it has obtained 1.6 million signatures to get on the California ballot as part of an effort to get ballot status in all 50 states.
That argument is also contained in the forthcoming book co-authored by Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, the distinguished Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. It is titled That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. It is clear that the argument on behalf of Americans Elect will only get more publicity as the days go on.
Friedman and Mandelbaum obviously hope, as Friedman writes in his column, to blow open the entire nominating process, thereby “guaranteeing that a credible third choice, nominated independently,” will be available for all Americans to have come the 2012 election day.
The first question to ask, since we are told that the group’s offices are “swank” and a “stone’s throw from the White House,” is: who is financing the organization? Friedman tells us only that its funds come for “serious hedge-fund money.” I ask a simple question: when is hedge-fund money a source of independent centrist thought, which comes to the country from the top down and from the brains of a Times columnist and not from any genuine bottom-up people’s organization?
How do they know, since their convention will be an Internet ballot, that all Americans will have access, and that people in favor of one or another candidate will not vote many times from different computers and using different handles? Have they even thought that out? Friedman says “the people will choose the issues.” You bet: Thomas Friedman and friends will play no party, except, of course, for setting forth the agenda and dominating its announcement of party principles. How democratic.
Oh, we are told that all we have to do is go to the Americans Elect website and register — again: many times, with different names, if we so choose. Will they know that this is not being done by interested partisans? The answer is rather obvious.
Friedman says only serious candidates will be permitted — “no Lady Gaga allowed.” I guess he would permit a Barack Obama type — who had no real experience to handle the job of president, no real record in the Senate, and one real job behind him — that of community organizer. Some of us, I think, might prefer Lady Gaga instead. After all, she obviously is a marketing and business genius.
And then there is the ridiculous rule that a Democrat has to run with a Republican or independent, or vice versa. That, of course, means little, since within each party, there are already those who have matching views, and their original label means little. As usual, Friedman is a bit too sanguine and excited about how his group will do what Amazon “did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music,” etc. These items, of course, are commodities — not political parties. The whole operation is rather reminiscent of the ill-conceived “No Labels” movement that got a lot of hype, and which promptly went nowhere.
Yet we learn from today’s Wall Street Journal, from pollsters Patrick H. Caddell and Douglas E. Schoen, both disaffected Democrats who lean conservative on many issues, that America is now in a “prerevolutionary moment,” one in which our countrymen “support…fundamental change in the system” and are “searching beyond the two parties for bold and effective leadership.”
Schoen’s polling company found that a majority of Americans want an alternative to the two-party system, and a majority — 57 percent of respondents — found a need for a third party. They also favored, Schoen says, having a major third party run a presidential candidate, and one in five said they would certainly or most likely vote for that candidate.
I wonder if Schoen and Caddell recall the ballot a year before that critical 1948 election, when Harry S. Truman found himself pitted against the segregationist Dixiecrat ticket of Strom Thurmond and the leftist pro-Communist ticket led by Henry A. Wallace of the aptly named Progressive Party, a Communist front? The polls — albeit not as good as they are today — showed many Democrats on the left hostile to the president, and vowing to throw their support to Wallace’s Progressive Party. Truman had tried to break a major brewing strike by threatening to call in the Army to replace striking workers, and he was not fighting the Taft-Hartley Act that limited labor’s power, although he had vetoed it. Labor got out the message it was fed up with Truman, and would not support him.
Come election day, of course, the only place Wallace got any substantial votes was left-wing union dominated New York City, enabling the state to fall to the Republican candidate, Thomas E. Dewey — and to deprive Truman of what otherwise would have been a state that always goes Democratic. The rest of the country allowed Truman to win, and the early vows of protest and promises to vote for Henry Wallace meant little.
Nevertheless, Schoen and Caddell say that the Gallup poll as well shows both Republicans and Democrats warm to the idea. Their focus groups of 100 people held around the country found even former Obama voters undecided, and “desperate for a leader who stands outside of the political establishment currently running Washington.” So they, like Friedman, conclude that desperate voters will produce a new third or even fourth party that will be competitive in the 2012 election.
And like Friedman, they say: “Look no further than the recent launch of the centrist, bipartisan, Americans Elect.” They do note that the Tea Party movement is in effect “a quasi-third party already,” having driven the debate over the debt ceiling. But to date, one has not found Tea Party members calling for a third party — and as we know, it would be anything but centrist, but likely even more to the Right than the current Republican Party.
So who will run on the Americans Elect line? They say that Donald Trump is again considering, which is yet more of a joke than his last hint at a run on the Republican ticket. Is this the best the third party crowd can give us? So who would it be? My guess is that Michael Bloomberg, increasingly unpopular as mayor of New York, might want to throw his money into the ring and be its candidate. If so, this hardly talks to the candidate being chosen by the entire country through an internet ballot.
One must also recall that if a candidate to the right or left of the Republican Party does run — let us say a Trump, Bloomberg, or the like — that candidate would be most likely to gain the votes not of Republicans, but of Democrats on the left furious at Obama for betraying them. In other words: assure the Republican victory more than if the third party was not on the ballot. That would be the case also if the candidate that emerges is a Dennis Kucinich, a Ralph Nader, or someone else on the political Left who, again, would gain only left-wing Democrats who feel betrayed.
And the argument also fails to face the possibility that another candidate could enter the Republican race — someone popular with the more moderate conservative politics (especially in style) of a Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, or Mitch Daniels. That might also produce an upset that unseats both frontrunners Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, thereby gaining votes for the ticket that independents might vote for. On the Democratic side, perhaps Hillary Clinton will quit, and wage a primary challenge against Obama. Anything can happen, and in that case, the election is wide open in a new way.
Whatever occurs, a third party could crack apart before it even gets to nominate a candidate. Even Michael Bloomberg’s endless funds, I predict, would not be enough to push Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning voters to cast their ballot for the third party. Sometimes, it is best to simply ignore the enthusiastic bromides of pundits like Tom Friedman.