Illustration by Jason Polan

Third-Party Chestnut Won’t Fix Broken U.S. Politics: Albert Hunt

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Aug. 1 (Bloomberg) -- The disgust with Washington and the U.S. body politic is palpable as Republicans and Democrats play petty games that imperil the nation’s full faith and credit.

With a system that looks broken, there are rising calls for basic change. Predictably, an old saw, the need for a new party and a centrist presidential candidate, is gaining new currency. One plan, by a new political force, Americans Elect, aims to enlist millions of citizens to vote online for a third-party or independent candidate for president and to acquire ballot access in all 50 states. One of the most influential American columnists, Tom Friedman of the New York Times, embraced this initiative, arguing that it could create a “radical center” alternative in American politics, much in the same way that Inc. revolutionized the book business.

This is an idea whose time hasn’t come, and may never, despite the understandable public revulsion with the nation’s political leaders.

The most basic problem, one that often afflicts such movements, is that it’s top down; find a charismatic presidential candidate and all flows from there. If fundamental change is the purpose, the emphasis instead should be on a bottom-up approach to building local candidates and grassroots infrastructure that subsequently could wage a serious presidential run.

“Charismatic candidates can help, but if you want a sustained movement there has to be a lot of work and effort building at the local level, creating an institutional structure,” says Edward H. Lazarus, who more than a quarter-century ago co-wrote “Third Parties in America.”

Bull Moose

There rarely has been a more charismatic candidate than Teddy Roosevelt, he notes. TR ran as a Bull Moose independent in the 1912 election, lost and not long afterwards “his movement disappears.”

In 1992, the independent candidate Ross Perot received 19 percent of the presidential vote; this top-down effort to create a Reform party failed miserably. Governors, such as Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, and Connecticut’s Lowell Weicker, were elected as independents; they left no enduring legacy.

Third- or fourth-party movements aren’t unusual in U.S. politics, from the Prohibitionists to the Communists. Sustainability requires a rationale and support from a committed slice of the electorate.

Radical Center

Some of today’s strongest advocates for an alternative political force say there is an opening for a party that isn’t beholden to special interests, governed from the center, a position called common sense by some, a radical center by others.

Sounds interesting. Is there a middle-ground consensus, not amply represented by Republicans or Democrats today, on the war in Afghanistan, or Medicaid, or a carbon tax, or the controversial social issues?

Actually, a more compelling case can be made that there’s a vacuum for a populist neo-right-wing movement: one that is anti-immigration, anti-Wall Street, anti-welfare state and opposes foreign entanglements and aid. This would share little in common with a common-sense centrist party.

Americans Elect is undeterred by these obstacles. This is a well-intended group with a blue-ribbon advisory board that includes a few top officials from both Democratic and Republican administrations and prominent citizens such as Irv Hockaday, former chief executive officer of Hallmarks Cards Inc., and William Webster, a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Internet Drive

The goal is to register, through the Internet, millions of delegates who, next June, will nominate a presidential and vice-presidential candidate and establish 15 to 20 major policy planks.

“The American people know they’re not well served by duopoly in the American political system, and with the Internet and social media we can extend to politics the competition that’s in other facets of our lives,” says Elliot Ackerman, the chief operating officer of Americans Elect. The group says it already has gathered 1.6 million signatures to get the ticket on the California ballot and vows it will do the same in the other 50 venues.

Americans Elect stresses transparency, and vows to get away from secret deals and smoke-filled rooms. Yet it changed its tax status and doesn’t disclose the identities of all of its funders. “We’re playing by the rules,” says Ackerman, who adds that all of the money goes to the organizing effort, not to the eventual candidates.

‘National Level’

They have no intention of fielding candidates at any level below the national ticket. “We think the focus has to be on the level of leadership at the national level,” says Kahlil Byrd, the group’s CEO.

Certainly, the debate over the debt fiasco fuels the contempt and disdain that many Americans feel for Washington. Veteran politicians of both parties say they can’t remember a time when the system was more broken.

America’s two political parties are too often captives of narrower interests and a my-way-or-the-highway base. That flaw afflicted Democrats a generation ago, and today the central cause of political dysfunction are the unyielding, out-of-the-mainstream elements of the Republican Party that often call the shots.

Sharp disagreements, disputes and divides are healthy in democratic societies. The debt ceiling, however, isn’t the stuff of earlier battles over war and peace, or civil rights or the New Deal. And when it comes to unsustainable deficits, Democrats and Republicans both are culpable.

Stable System

Still, for more than a century and a half, these two parties have served America well, creating a more stable political system than most democracies. Sometimes they have benefitted from independent or third-party movements, absorbing ideas and disaffected voters.

It may be that this time, one or both these parties have gone too far and the new technology affords opportunities for sweeping change. If so, independent or third-party advocates should focus next year on electing hundreds of state legislators, dozens of members of Congress and perhaps even a statewide office holder or two. That might provide the start of the necessary infrastructure of a new movement, or force the major political parties to adapt.

That’s less sexy and a lot tougher than tapping someone to run a quixotic campaign for president. It also is more serious.

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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