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The Follies of Thomas Friedman's Third Party

Truman won despite losing Pennsylvania and New York. Truman’s loss of New York, a traditionally Democratic stronghold, can be attributed to Wallace’s strong vote in the union stronghold of New York City. Wallace’s vote in New York state was close to 510,000. If Wallace had not been on the ballot, Truman would have won that state as well. Had other states shown an equally significant vote for the leftist candidate, the left and liberals who wanted Truman to win would have found that their own third-party effort could have led to his defeat.

There is also the argument that even if the third-party candidate fails to win, his different positions eventually influence the major party candidates, who adopt the third-party candidate's ideas even during the campaign, thus getting the votes of those who otherwise might not have voted for the major party candidate. I do not find that argument convincing. Truman did succeed in diminishing Wallace’s appeals to African-Americans by taking a strong stance on civil rights. But he had done this on his own, and welcomed the departure from the Democratic ranks of the Southern white segregationists. He did not need Wallace calling for civil rights to influence him.

Push comes to shove, a third-party candidate usually leads to victory for one or the other major party candidates -- and those citizens who actually vote for the third-party candidate find that they see in office the major party candidate they least like. Even Friedman acknowledges that even he does not know if he would vote for an independent, out of fear that voting for him might lead to a defeat for Barack Obama, whom he prefers to any of the Republican contenders. (Surprise, surprise.) As he says, Ralph Nader’s race in 2000 led to victory for George W. Bush, whom many argue would have lost to Al Gore had the leftist Nader not made a run.

Finally, there is the Ron Paul factor, which Michael Warren raises. Could not the Americans Elect party be hijacked by Paul’s supporters? Walker discounts this, but as Warren writes, the candidate is supposed to be picked by an online nominating process, in which one can vote by signing up on their website. (He fails to mention that the party reserves the right to reject the candidate chosen by those who vote, and to put in their own.) But so far Ron Paul has the most online support. When June comes, delegates are supposed to vote in an online convention to choose from a field of six. The winner is then supposed to select a running mate from the political party he or she does not belong to.

Paul has said he will not run on a third-party ticket. But in politics, anything can change. And his supporters, as Scott McConnell argues in the cover story in the new American Conservative, think this is the year his isolationist views can gain real traction, as the public is fed up with an assertive hawkish foreign policy and wants to defeat what he thinks are the warlike views of the neocon cabal that have so far dominated the Republican ranks. As McConnell writes:

Paul has denied any interest in a third-party bid. But while the Republican Party could easily find a way to make rhetorical and platform concessions to the economic parts of Paul’s agenda, a potent "bring them home" foreign-policy movement cannot long coexist alongside the GOP’s regnant neoconservatism.

So McConnell wants the GOP to resurrect George McGovern’s disastrous strategy and program of 1972, uniting perhaps with the likes of Dennis Kucinich to gather backing for Paul, who would lead an America in which the candidate thinks our country really faces no serious threats. Were the Republicans to listen to McConnell’s advice and to do as he suggests, in that case, there is no doubt that any Democrat would win.

So finally, here is my conclusion: a third party, if its candidate is to the right of Barack Obama, will produce a victory for Obama. That candidate would siphon off votes from those who otherwise would vote Republican, but are not enthusiastic about any of the current crop of Republican candidates.

If the third-party candidate is to the left of Barack Obama, he might take away votes from those who think Obama has sold his soul to corporate America, like the OWS movement and African-Americans who listen to Cornel West and Tavis Smiley. But these two elements are not that strong or dominant, and the chances are his candidacy would play no role at all, except if in a close state like Florida the Nader effect again came into play.

In either case, what that third-party would do is act as a spoiler for either the Democrat or Republican. And those who voted for it will end up angry and frustrated.