The Myth of the Middle
Why we should be skeptical about the current mania for a third party that appeals to independents and libertarians.
Most of this, by the way, would have no effect at all on the federal deficit. Unlike the straight libertarian tonic, in which government would simply stop doing certain things, these hybrid, market-based solutions are likely to cost more, for comparable public benefits, than direct delivery of benefits through government. That’s true in health (single payer is cheaper than a subsidized private insurance scheme), retirement (Bush’s Social Security privatization by itself would have worsened the system’s long-term finances), and education (student loans through banks cost more than government loans, and a real voucher system would cost more than public schools). There may be good reasons to prefer market-based solutions in all these cases, but “we are so out of money” certainly isn’t one of them. All the verve of the first part of the book is lost in the final journey through the zero-sum choices of deficit politics and stale policy solutions that don’t even address the deficit.
In many ways, the alternative politics that Americans Elect, No Labels, and, to a small degree, Welch and Gillespie were looking for was embodied in the campaign and election of Barack Obama—a campaign that reached people who hadn’t been interested in politics, promised to transcend partisanship, and built an electoral coalition that reached deep into Republican territory such as Indiana. As the President points out even in his more recent “populist” mode, many of the ideas he’s embraced on health-care reform, deficit reduction, education, and job creation come from Republicans. But his presidency quickly became a very ordinary one, smashed on the rocks of economic crisis and obstruction.
If you see this as a failure or betrayal by Obama, the case for a third party is strong. Here’s Politico’s Allen again, with executive editor Jim VandeHei, explaining their online primary: “Voters have watched first George W. Bush and then Barack Obama promise to reach out to the other party—then not only fail spectacularly at bipartisanship but make the city’s divisions even deeper.” But the failure here was not principally Obama’s. Nor was it entirely the fault of congressional Republicans. It was the system as it has evolved, a system with too many veto points and too much entrenched power, and one in which money carries too much weight. It’s a system that can be reformed, in ways large and small, but a third party or independent candidacy, absent other reforms, won’t do a thing to the system. And the fact that many of the leading advocates for a third party or independent candidate are so deeply embedded in the system, and are its winners, should make us all even more skeptical about the fantasy.
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