The Myth of the Middle
Why we should be skeptical about the current mania for a third party that appeals to independents and libertarians.
The American political system has evolved several mechanisms to protect its own dysfunction. One of them is fantasy. Like a spouse who manages to remain monogamous by continually imagining the affairs she is going to have but never does, the political process protects itself by imagining an alternative in which a third party or independent presidential candidate will emerge any day now, sweep away partisanship, polarization, corruption, and stasis, and enact lots of sensible policies.
In the year before a presidential election, the fantasies come in a rush: Books are published with titles like Independents’ Day, Declaring Independence, this year’s The Declaration of Independents, and other variations on that hackneyed theme. Organizations and websites appear, promising to hold tryouts for the mystery candidate, like Unity08 in the last cycle. Sometimes, there is even a brief, rumored flash of an actual candidate, such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The last three years have brought the dysfunction of the political system into sharp relief, and, not surprisingly, the fantasy third parties and independent candidates-to-be-named-later have sprouted like mushrooms after a rainstorm. There’s No Labels, an organization that promises to recast American politics without partisanship. There’s Americans Elect, which seeks to secure a ballot line in as many states as possible and then use the Internet to nominate a presidential candidate to occupy it. The books have just started to appear, with The Declaration of Independents by the libertarians Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie the first of them. But just as in previous years, actual candidates willing to play the role of savior are scarce on the ground.
These third-party or independent projects usually have three characteristics in common, with one exception to be noted below. First, the people stoking these initiatives are rarely outsiders—typically, they are the very people for whom the existing political system has been most lucrative. They are lobbyists, fundraisers, political consultants. If there is, as is often alleged, a continuous cocktail party that runs the country from Georgetown salons, this is it. No Labels, for example, was founded by Nancy Jacobson, a legendary Democratic fundraiser, co-founder also of the Democratic think tank Third Way, and a Georgetown doyenne whose husband, Mark Penn, masterminded Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and runs the third-largest public relations firm in the world. Penn’s sometime business partner, Douglas Schoen, is another practitioner of fantasy politics; he’s the author of the 2008 book, Declaring Independence.
These initiatives are like company unions, designed to redirect discontent into safe, controlled forms that don’t threaten existing power structures. The list of co-founders of No Labels begins with Bill Andresen, a former chief of staff to Senator Joe Lieberman, now a lobbyist, and ends with Al Wynn, a former member of Congress, now… a lobbyist.
Most of the co-founders, like many of the other third-party fantasists, come from the conservative wing of the Democratic Party. They often claim, as Lieberman does, that they have been frozen out of politics as their party moved to the left and the Republicans moved to the right. But in fact conservative Democrats have held the balance of power for two decades. They have limited what Presidents Clinton and Obama could accomplish, and they enabled many of George W. Bush’s accomplishments. Take this example of their power: When a promising alternative approach to health reform—allowing 55-to-65 year olds to buy into Medicare—emerged in early 2010, all it took was a single negative gesture from Lieberman, and the idea was buried in less than a day.
Few senators in history have held the veto power that Lieberman, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and a few others hold in the current political structure. The closest parallel would be the Southern Caucus of the 1940s through the 1960s, by which the (even more) conservative Democrats of that era used the seniority system and committee chairmanships to block civil rights legislation and many other progressive priorities. Lieberman, Landrieu, and Nelson, however, exert their power without leadership positions or control of key committees. No Labels, Third Way, and Americans Elect seem designed to strengthen this already-overempowered bloc.
Americans Elect, which has gained ballot status in four states so far for its candidate-to-be-named-later, has a similar pedigree to No Labels, though it is more secretive. Its gimmick is that it will provide an open Internet platform allowing citizens to nominate candidates and then vote among the finalists—a “second nominating process,” they call it. But the nominee is required to be a “centrist” or hold a “moderate philosophy.” What if the nominee of the “open” process isn’t a moderate? And who gets to decide whether he is or isn’t? In 38 pages, a recently released briefing book for potential candidates fails to answer those questions.
Initially financed by investment banker Peter Ackerman, and run by Ackerman’s son, Americans Elect appears to be an outgrowth of Unity08, a thinly veiled effort to draft Bloomberg organized by a group of political consultants in 2006. (No surprise that political consultants are Bloomberg’s core constituency: His self-financed mayoral campaigns have made several New York consultants quite wealthy. A presidential run would surely enable a few of them to acquire the ultimate consultants’ status symbol, a Virginia horse-country estate.) Americans Elect’s leadership ranks are thus heavier on consultants—such as Schoen, former Bush and McCain aide Mark McKinnon, and direct-mail pioneer Roger Craver—than lobbyists, although several of the latter recently joined its board.
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