Don’t Hold Your Breath Waiting For That “Moderate” Political Party

Ron Brownstein wrote a column a few days ago for the LA Times that I’ve been meaning to discuss. It’s called “Internet, Polarized Politics Create an Opening for a Third Party” and here’s the crux of Brownstein’s argument:

“We are now moving toward a very dangerous place for both parties,” (Joe Trippi) says. “It is becoming much more possible for an independent or third party to emerge because they are leaving so much space in the middle.”

The hurdles for an independent presidential candidate remain formidable. Even one that attracted a competitive share of the popular vote might have trouble winning many electoral college votes; the strongest candidate could still face the syndrome of finishing second almost everywhere, trailing Republicans in the red states and Democrats in the blue. To have any chance, an independent would need to nearly run the table in battleground states — like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — that don’t tilt decisively to either side.

Yet if the two parties continue on their current trajectories, the backdrop for the 2008 election could be massive federal budget deficits, gridlock on problems like controlling healthcare costs, furious fights over ethics and poisonous clashes over social issues and Supreme Court appointments. A lackluster economy that’s squeezing the middle-class seems a reasonable possibility too.

In such an environment, imagine the options available to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) if he doesn’t win the 2008 Republican nomination, and former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, now that he’s dropped his flirtation with running for mayor of New York. If the two Vietnam veterans joined for an all-maverick independent ticket, they might inspire a gold rush of online support — and make the two national parties the latest example of the Internet’s ability to threaten seemingly impregnable institutions.”

First of all, third parties don’t win in America, they just split the vote. For example, the McCain/Kerrey ticket? Their chances of winning? Zero. The only question worth asking would be: which party would they hurt more and it would probably depend on who is on the top of the ticket. If it were Kerrey, it would be the Democrats and if it were McCain, it would be the GOP.

There are multiple reasons why a McCain/Kerrey ticket would have no chance. Brownstein discusses the biggest one in his column: even a strong independent ticket would have little chance in a state that tilts significantly towards one party or the other and, quite frankly, that seems to describe most states these days.

But there are two other huge problems an Independent/Moderate party would face.

To begin with, the energy in politics isn’t in the center, it’s on the sides. Put another way, conservatives and liberals just tend to care a lot more about their politics, which is why they, not moderates, provide most of the ideas, money, volunteers, and energy for their parties. Numbers wise, there may be a lot of moderates, but there aren’t enough of them with a passion for politics to carry a political party on their backs.

But even if the moderates were as jazzed up about politics on the whole as liberals and conservatives, there is no such thing as a “moderate” ideology. What it means to be a “moderate” literally changes from person to person. By that I mean, I can give you a pretty good description of what the conservative and liberal positions are on abortion, but what’s the “moderate” position supposed to be? Ask 10 different moderates and they’ll probably have 10 different answers. Same goes for foreign policy, gun control, judges, gay marriage, etc., etc., etc.. You simply can’t build a lasting political movement in this country if you can’t even explain what your “moderate party” believes in.

Independent/Moderate candidates can’t win at the presidential level; they can only play the role of spoiler. That’s not going to change anytime soon…

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