With respect for our dysfunctional Congress wallowing in the single digits, restive Americans are looking for answers to ideological gridlock. They fear the elections of 2012 either will produce more of the same or, worse, put governing in the hands of the fringes of one party or the other.
One idea gaining currency is a third party to break the headlock the two entrenched parties have on voters. It’s a tempting idea that is always expressed in relation to the presidency: Give us an alternative to the Democrat and Republican nominees.
That’s been tried several times, always without ultimate success but often distorting the outcome. There was Ross Perot in 1992 winning 19 percent of the popular vote but no Electoral College votes; Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, whose Progressive Party campaign ensured the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson over Roosevelt’s Republican successor; and of course Ralph Nader in 2000, who received enough votes in Florida to deny that state to Al Gore and pave the way for a sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court to make George W. Bush the president.
This time, some are still trying to persuade New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to have a go, and the group Americans Elect wants to organize a web-based convention that would nominate a candidate who would, through petitions, be on the ballot in every state.
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As with previous third-party efforts, those can only lead to more problems, for at least two reasons.
First, even a robust third-party effort is unlikely to get enough electoral votes to win, but it could ensure that no other candidate does either. And you know what happens then: The presidency would be decided in the House of Representatives. Enough said.
Second, if a third-party presidential candidate did succeed, he or she would be hopelessly and haplessly alone against the still riven Congress.
If there’s a third-party answer to our dilemma, it lies closer to the people, in contests for the Senate and House.
Imagine a third-party congressional effort founded on the principles of compromise whose candidates don’t take pledges about never raising taxes or promise not to touch entitlements but who will relentlessly work at conciliation.
Breaking the traditional parties’ headlock would not require a mass takeover, which is by any accounting quite impossible because of the majority of “safe” seats the parties have secured by distortive redistricting.
In fact, three or four third-party wins in the Senate and only a couple dozen in the House, even if in truly swing districts, would deny either party a certain majority and thus command respect and attention from the ideological hard-liners on both sides, and from the president.
Their presence would provide a rallying point and haven for the relatively few remaining moderates of both parties. Their votes, needed by both sides, could be leveraged against hard-line ideology and form the basis for addressing the nation’s deepest problems.
If those problems were insoluble, none of this would matter. But they are not; the solutions are available and understood. Congressional failure to act reflects the lack of courage to move away from the ideological fringes because of the assumed political costs.
A handful of people with the courage and the political freedom to act could make all the difference now and set a healthier tone for our democracy in the future.