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.
The 1912 race showed that what a third party achieved was to defeat the conservative Republican, and it led to the election of the Democrat Wilson, who began the massive statist rewriting of the Constitution that moved the nation away from its Constitutional foundations. It did little, indeed, to produce any victories for TR’s more moderate progressivism.
We also can look at the 1948 election, in which Harry S. Truman faced not only a Republican, but a third-party white Southern revolt led by the “states' rights” candidate Strom Thurmond, as well as a left-wing national candidate, former Commerce Secretary Henry A. Wallace, who many thought would triumph or at least lead to Truman’s defeat because of would-be support from the left-wing of organized labor and the support of African-Americans in the North. Wallace got on the ballot with his “Progressive Party,” as the Communists who ran and created the movement called their new party.
The result, as Wikipedia concludes, is as follows:
The key states in the 1948 election were Ohio, California, and Illinois. Truman narrowly won all three states by a margin of less than 1%. These three states had a combined total of 78 electoral votes. Had Dewey carried all three states by the same narrow margins, he would have won the election in the electoral college while still losing the popular vote. Had Dewey won any two of the three states the Dixiecrats would have succeeded in their goal of forcing the election into the House. The extreme closeness of the vote in these three states was the major reason why Dewey waited until late on the morning of November 3 to concede. A similarly narrow margin garnered Idaho and Nevada's electoral votes for Truman. Dewey countered by narrowly carrying New York and Pennsylvania, the states with the most electoral votes at the time, as well as Michigan, but it wasn't enough to give him the election. Dewey would always believe that he lost the election because he lost the rural vote in the Midwest, which he had won in the 1944 presidential election; given the effect the dramatic drop in farm commodity prices in the fall of 1948, a year of record farm harvests, may have had on the political mindset of the rural vote that November, Dewey may well have been right.
Truman's victory can be attributed to many factors: his aggressive, populist campaign style; Dewey's complacent, distant approach to the campaign, and his failure to respond to Truman's attacks; the major shift in public opinion from Dewey to Truman during the late stages of the campaign; broad public approval of Truman's foreign policy, notably the Berlin Airlift of that year; and widespread dissatisfaction with the institution Truman labeled as the "do-nothing, good-for-nothing 80th Republican Congress." In addition, after suffering a relatively severe recession in 1946 and 1947 (in which real GDP dropped by 12% and inflation went over 15%), the economy began recovering throughout 1948, thus possibly motivating many voters to give Truman credit for the economic recovery. 1948 was essentially a Democratic year, as the Democrats not only retained the presidency but recaptured both houses of Congress as well. Furthermore, the two third parties did not hurt Truman nearly as much as expected. Thurmond's Dixiecrats carried only four Southern states, a lower total than predicted. The civil rights platform helped Truman win large majorities among black voters in the populous Northern and Midwestern states, and may well have made the difference for Truman in states such as Illinois and Ohio. Wallace's Progressives received only 2.4% of the national popular vote -- well below their expected vote total -- and Wallace did not take as many liberal votes from Truman as many political pundits had predicted.
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.