Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Time for Centrists to Fight Back

Ronald Brownstein’s LA Times column about the possibility of a centrist third party has raised a lot of interest in the Centrist blogosphere (Charging RINO has a good round-up of reaction).

But should forming a new party be our strategy? The Yellow Line decided to investigate. The results cannot be summed up in a short post but it’s well worth the read.

Centrists have always claimed they represent the mainstream of American sentiment. But third parties are most frequently the domain of fringe groups like the Marxist Socialist Party or the theocratic isolationist American Heritage Party (this site has a great list of America’s wacky third parties). But as the Dems and Repubs become the fringes, who will speak for the center?

There hasn’t been a successful third party since the Republicans showed up in the 1850s-60s. Can another shift happen? Assuming the Internet can make organization and financing possible (and it can be done as Howard Dean’s insurgent Democratic candidacy proved), here are the three main obstacles a Centrist Party must overcome to elect a President:

  1. Candidates: Who would run down ticket? The party cannot be based on the presidential candidate alone or the party will be consumed by that personality. Think Ross Perot’s Reform Party, the Pat Buchanan-based America First Party or even the Green Party that was so consumed by Ralph Nader in 2000 that they essentially kicked him out of the party. The Yellow Line has supported a party begun by John McCain but the Senator would need to get a solid number of other high-profile politicians to join him. This could happen if the two parties continue to push away their centrists.

  2. Debates: The two parties conspire against third party Presidential candidates and the media capitulates. As the Citizen’s Debate Council points out, the system is rigged. Ross Perot got in but only because he hadgreat poll numbers. For a Centrist Party candidate to get an invite, he or she would clearly need a lot of media coverage and exceptional poll numbers before the debates are set. Again, this is reasonable if an already high-profile politician is on the ticket.

  3. Electoral College: This is the biggie. A Centrist wouldn’t need to just win the popular vote, but would have to win actual states. Can it happen? Let’s make a big assumption and agree that the “battleground states” are most likely to go Centrist. If all 14 went Centrist, the candidate would still be 109 electoral votes short. But how red are the red states and how blue are the blue states and how much is just regional habit? It’s not unforeseeable that a Centrist candidate could be competitive throughout the West and the Upper South as well as the Midwest and Southwest. Daunting but still possible—particularly if the Republicans and Democrats run divisive candidates.

So a Presidential win has an outside shot. But a Centrist Party would need more than just a strong Presidential candidate. The problem is, third parties don’t have much of a chance at becoming dominant parties. As the excellent Cornell Library site points out:

Third-party candidates for the Presidency have been far more influential in raising public awareness about particular issues and affecting the tenor of political discourse, than in winning votes. The two dominant parties have often adopted concerns championed by a third party, ironically diminishing the third party’s power.

True. But even though Centrists would be far from a one-issue party, think about this: with the government so closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, just 10 Centrist Party Senators and 50 Centrist Party Representatives would be the deciding factor in almost all controversial legislation. Without having a majority, the Centrists would still wield extraordinary power.

Would centrist-leaning voters be willing to abandon the Democrats and Republicans, the parties they helped build, the parties that they thought they controlled until very recently? Centrists are rationale people not likely to, as they say, “throw their vote away.” As such, a third-party grassroots movement can only entice so many members. In the end, it will take well-known politicians having the nerve to leave their own parties and join the fledgling Centrist Party. They’d be giving up a hell of a lot and putting their name and faith in a group without the network, the funds or the influence of the other parties.

But there is another option. We could mount our own insurgency within one of the parties—the Democrats, being out of power, are the most obvious target. But we’d have to prove our candidates and ideas can win as opposed to candidates and ideas baked by MoveOn and their ilk. The current Democratic centrists, the DLC, haven’t been great at laying out a vision for where they want to take the country. Could a new Centrist group aligned with the Dems do better? We have to think we can.

And the group built as an insurgent part of the Democrats could branch off to become its own party—or better yet, force the MoveOn wing to break away and form its own party. This could be our best strategy. There are certainly others.

But what we can’t do is just wait and see how it all shakes out. We can’t just poke at both parties and hope, just maybe, one will nominate a centrist for President. We need to make our voices heard in a loud and clear way. We need to do more than just support Centrists of both parties—we need to make sure there is a party for centrists. And the Internet can make this happen.

At The Yellow Line, we’re just idealistic enough to think it can be done. It wouldn’t be easy. It might take several elections to see results. But we must undertake the task.

Let’s hear some thoughts—not why it can’t be done, but how it should be done.

NOTE: The Centrist Coalition is a great resource that is beginning to form policy positions from a Centrist standpoint. They are currently not affiliated with either party but are gaining momentum.


At 6:42 PM, Anonymous William Swann said...

Hi Alan. Very interesting post.

I think third party efforts have suffered from what you might call "quirky candidate syndrome" -- they've only been pursued by people who turn out to have something wrong with them.

If Ross Perot weren't a little kooky, his effort might very well have worked.

One thing worth checking out is the work being done by the Independence Party in Minnesota -- the guys who brought you Gov. Jesse Ventura (a proud example of the quirky syndrom). They turned quite serious in the subsequent election and ran Tim Penny for governor, an experienced and highly qualified candidate with a serious centrist agenda.

The Independence Party folks are trying to put down good roots in Minnesota, but I believe they have also worked on branching out a bit.

Another great person to consider in the non-party arena is former Gov. Angus King of Maine, an extremely sharp guy who was a very popular governor of perhaps the most centrist state in the union. He's a real leader who doesn't belong to either party.


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