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The Follies of Thomas Friedman's Third Party

Writing in the current issue of The Weekly Standard, which was published on Saturday, Michael Warren predicted what Thomas Friedman would say about the prospect of a third-party candidacy in 2012. Wrote Warren, imagining a debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama:

Now imagine moderator Jim Lehrer asking each of the three how he plans to rein in the massive federal budget deficit. Obama argues that the rich need to pay their fair share and defense spending must shrink. Romney responds that it’s domestic spending that needs cutting, and taxes should stay low to spur the sluggish economy. Then, Lehrer turns to the man in the middle.

“There they go again,” our mystery candidate quips. “The same politics as usual. Is it any wonder Washington can’t get things done?” Thomas Friedman … revel(s) in the moment.

And so, as Warren continues, we have the phenomenon of the well-funded but not so well-known group Americans Elect, which is beating the drums for a third-party campaign by as yet an unknown candidate: a moderate the likes of Jon Huntsman from the Republican Party or Evan Bayh from the Democratic Party. Elliot Ackerman, the son of wealthy investor Peter Ackerman who started the group, told Warren: “They have no ‘ideal’ person in mind but hope to see a candidate who can resist being forced ‘into the two narrow boxes that the two major parties have regarding policy positions.’”

No sooner than I read this, I turned on Sunday to the editorial page of the New York Times, and true to Warren’s prediction, Thomas Friedman was on the warpath again, truly reveling in the moment that he and both elder and younger Ackerman see as America’s moment for a new party. If Rick Santorum gets the nomination, Friedman argues, “there is a good chance a Third Party will try to fill the space between the really ‘severely conservative Santorum (or even Mitt Romney) and the left-of-center Barack Obama.” What Friedman wants is “an intelligent independent candidate just taking part in the presidential debates,” which would make Obama and his Republican opponent “better.”

His choice would be the founder of Americans Elect, David Walker, a man committed to fiscal sanity for the United States. Like conservatives, Walker worries that if we do not tend to our fiscal house, the U.S. too could well go the way of Greece. So Walker agrees with conservatives that Democrats are in denial about renegotiating the terms of the social contract. But he also argues that Obama falls short on addressing the structural deficits at home as well, and in particular, the necessary reforms we need to make on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

So far so good. One might ask at this point why not just support a Republican, or a conservative that has made just these points over and over?

These points have, however, met only with the response from the Democratic side and from liberals of a firm no, or simply name-calling, or nonsense that Republicans want to throw grandma off a cliff. But Walker argues that the Republicans are not willing to support higher taxes, which we need as well to attain fiscal sanity.

Get it now? We need a candidate who stands with the Republicans for budget cuts, and with Democrats for higher taxes!

Take one solution from Column A and another from Column B, as in the Chinese restaurants of yesteryear. In Walker’s eyes, we need $1 in new revenue for each $3 made in spending cuts, and that means tax reform. “The Republicans,” he claims, are “simply in denial about this.” Actually,  as I’m certain most conservatives know, there are many conservatives who indeed have called many times for major tax reform as necessary for fiscal prudence. Such a program, of course, is something quite different than calling for tax increases, which is the generally preferred left/liberal solution, advanced by calls for “taxing the rich.”

So what, if anything, is wrong with the Walker-Friedman scenario? What is right with it, if anything?

In the 2010 Republican Senate primary in Delaware, we saw that Christine O’Donnell got the Republican slot instead of the more moderate congressman, Mike Castle. She then lost by a large percentage to the Democrat Chris Coons. Clearly, had Castle been nominated, he would have easily won. Had Americans Elect been on the ballot at the state level, as Warren writes, “Castle might have run and won as an independent.” There are many more similar examples one can come up with.

But on a national level, a third party would have quite a different result. And here, we have our own political history as an example. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt announced he would run again for the seat on a new “Bull Moose” or Progressive Party, challenging William Howard Taft on the Republican ticket, Woodrow Wilson on the Democratic ticket, and Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs.

The result, as Wikipedia reports, was the weakest Republican ticket in history:

The split in the Republican vote resulted in the weakest Republican effort in history. Roosevelt's strong third-party candidacy created the only instance in the twentieth century of a third-party candidate receiving more electoral votes than one of the major-party candidates: although he failed to become chief executive again, Roosevelt succeeded in his vendetta against Taft, who received just 23% of the popular vote compared to Roosevelt's 27%. The election of 1912 was also the only election in which a third-party candidate received more popular votes than one of the major-party candidates. Winning only eight electoral votes, Taft suffered a worse defeat than any other president defeated for re-election.

Wilson easily won election despite getting fewer votes and a lower percentage than William Jennings Bryan had for the Democrats four years previously: 6.3 million votes and 42% to 6.4 million and 43% for Bryan, who lost badly to Taft in 1908. The split in the Republican vote made it possible for Wilson to carry a number of states that had been reliably Republican for decades. For the first time since 1852, a majority of the New England states were carried by a Democrat. In fact, Wilson was the first Democratic presidential candidate ever to carry the state of Massachusetts (whereas Rhode Island and Maine had not been carried by a Democrat since 1852). On the West coast, Oregon had not been carried by a Democrat since 1868.