Shortly after announcing in February that she would not seek reelection, Maine’s Republican Senator Olympia Snowe took to the pages of the Washington Post to engage in what might be the last bipartisan tradition in the Senate: lambasting it on your way out the door. In fact, with its call to “engender public support for the political center,” Snowe’s piece resembled an earlier entry in the same genre, Democratic Senator Evan Bayh’s 2010 retirement op-ed in the New York Times. After using the Times to complain about Washington’s dysfunction, Bayh quietly accepted a partnership at the K Street office of McGuireWoods and a post as “senior adviser” to its consulting group. The plum lobbying job was a predictable next step for Bayh. Snowe’s next step might be a little different: there is much speculation that she could be considering a run for president.
Now, wait just a minute, you might be saying. I’ve been following the Republican primary race, and Olympia Snowe is not one of the candidates. That’s correct. Instead, the political organization mentioned in rumors of Snowe’s candidacy is Americans Elect, which is running an online nominating process for an independent, bipartisan presidential ticket. In response to an inquiry from New York magazine, an Americans Elect spokesperson praised Snowe’s “courage in speaking the truth and taking a stand against the current state of gridlock in Washington.”
Of course, decrying Washington gridlock in the pages of the Washington Post takes about as much courage as decrying the Yankees in Fenway Park. But such fatuous praise for Snowe is typical of the argument that Americans Elect and others have been making for years about partisanship and ideological rigidity in Washington. Only an independent centrist unafraid to challenge the shibboleths of left and right can save us, is the mantra. Already, Americans Elect has collected nearly 2.5 million signatures and gained ballot access in 19 states (with many more to come). It plans to spend as much as $40 million this year, much of it raised from anonymous, ultra-wealthy donors. The effort could spawn a major third-party candidacy this fall. That’s why it’s important to understand why third-party enthusiasts are so wrong.
In the nation’s major papers, Americans Elect has no greater champion than the Washington Post’s Matt Miller. Miller’s basic argument for transcending our polarized politics is captured well in a column he wrote last September, bluntly titled “Why We Need a Third Party.” Miller complains that President Obama’s jobs plan would create only 2 million jobs when 25 million are needed, while the Republicans’ extremist anti-tax demands threaten government shutdown. Neither “timid half-measures” or “anti-tax fanaticism” will work, he announces. Instead, it’s time for the “far center” to emerge, where people tired of politics-as-usual can blend “the best of liberal and conservative thinking.”
This is an utterly baffling conclusion. If the Republican position is too far to the right, and the Democratic position is not far enough to the left, why would the correct position be somewhere in between? Miller’s argument that Obama’s jobs plan should have been bolder means, for all practical purposes, more stimulus, more aid to state governments, and longer extensions of unemployment benefits. In other words, the plan should have been more left-wing.
Miller’s analysis goes from illogical to misleading. Attempting to demonstrate the rigidity of both parties on major issues, he points to education policy. The left’s problem, he argues, is that “Democrats can’t say we need to fire bad teachers.” Stop right there. This claim is flatly untrue. Now, it is true that Democrats are divided over teacher tenure and how, or whether, job security should be linked to performance reviews and test scores. But that’s precisely the point: The party is divided because many of its most prominent figures—including Obama—favor making it easier to fire teachers. In fact, Googling “Obama on firing teachers” returns a 2010 item from the Washington Post lambasting Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan for praising a Rhode Island school where the entire teaching staff was fired for students’ persistently low test scores.
But the “both sides do it!” claim is the stock-in-trade of the third-party crowd. After all, the system is so stacked against them that creating a third party wouldn’t be worth it unless both Democrats and Republicans were irredeemable. This is one reason Americans Elect spends so much time peddling the myth that centrists are homeless in national politics. “Wouldn’t it be nice if the political process acknowledged that Americans come in more colors than red and blue?” reads a typical complaint on the group’s website.
That claim is difficult to take seriously. While the Republicans’ rightward move is undeniable, Democrats have managed, albeit gracelessly, to keep both centrists and liberals in their coalition. There is plenty of evidence for this in the endless intraparty debates over the size of the stimulus package, the scope of health-care reform, and the Obama administration’s judicial appointments. When faced with a tough choice, the White House has consistently tacked more to the center than to the left on these issues. And with party discipline so rigid in the Senate (mostly due to Republicans’ unprecedented and disastrous abuse of the filibuster, which made it necessary for Democrats to unite in order to pass anything), centrist voices wield the crucial votes in every major legislative battle. Snowe herself was one of three centrist Republican senators who were able to extract major concessions in exchange for their votes on the stimulus bill, and she did much the same during the health-care debate. As Mark Schmitt recently pointed out in Democracy, “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.”
That makes sense, since the policy proposals for tax reform, deficit reduction, and infrastructure investment by third-party boosters amount to little more than a combination of ideas from the conservative and liberal wings of the Democratic Party. This is not an offensive or misguided agenda, but its third-party promoters tend to ignore or gloss over the fact that for the most part, it’s already been adopted by the Democrats. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times—like Miller, an enthusiastic fan of Americans Elect—routinely exhibits a mysterious indifference to the Democrats’ record while calling for a new party to adopt an agenda nearly identical to that of the Democrats. In one 2010 column, Friedman praised Obama’s “real accomplishments” on health care and financial regulation, but argued that even these achievements fell short of the challenges facing the nation. (“Suboptimal is OK for ordinary times,” wrote Friedman, “but these are not ordinary times.” Italics his.)
Fair enough, but Obama’s shortcomings on health care, financial regulation, stimulus, energy, and climate change weren’t the fault of what Friedman calls the “two-party duopoly.” Again, the implication is that, for the most part, Obama’s achievements should have been more left-wing, not more centrist. So the question remains: Why a centrist third party, and why now?
It seems to me that behind this impulse lies a strong discomfort with political conflict. A narrative so full of rosy views of what could happen if only cooler heads prevailed makes the implicit argument that our differences aren’t so serious, and our most important political debates can be settled by experts and wonks. Taxes, education, and the environment are areas where compromise is possible; unlike culture wars, they’re not emotionally dramatic or zero-sum. The Washington Post’s Miller reveals that mindset in his “third-party stump speech,” a dream platform he wrote up last fall. After cycling through top priorities like the economy, political reform, and the budget, he concludes: “As you may have noticed, I haven’t said anything about abortion, the death penalty, guns or gay marriage. These are important issues, but they’re not the most important things a president should address in the years ahead.... If they’re your top priority, I’m not your candidate.”
Miller is being remarkably condescending. If nothing else, political leaders owe the public the respect of taking their beliefs seriously. Gay marriage opponents think that expanding gay rights will undermine social order. That may be wrongheaded, but it’s a widespread, profound, and sincere belief—an inescapable political fact that can’t be ignored. And even if it’s not one of the “most important things,” it’s surely more important than parts of Miller’s plan that did make the cut, like boosting voter turnout by entering all voters into a $10 million lottery. I’d like to see a third-party candidate explain why a gimmicky voting lottery is more important than same-sex marriage. But in case I’m not so lucky, I’ll guess: It’s simple and well-intentioned. It’s unlikely to be controversial. And it sure does look like progress.