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Opinion: Debt Impasse Raises the Question: Where are All the 3rd Parties?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011 - 02:13 PM

The debt ceiling debate has been sucking almost all of the oxygen out of the room for weeks now, and it should be - there is nothing more important right now. It should come as no surprise that, in the face of an entirely politically created crisis - where the two major parties will neither live within their means nor pay for the debts they have voted to create - the chatter among those who aren't deeply connected to one party or the other for a centrist to moderate third party is at a high we haven't seen since the early 1990s.

This isn't just a gut feeling, or a relatively small of wonks' groupthink. Polling shows that we are seeing levels of anger and disappointment that we haven't seen in the public since the heady early days of Ross Perot's Reform Party, historic lows for major party approval ratings and interest in third party alternatives.

Fareed Zakaria had a great segment on CNN a few days ago on how we have gotten to such extreme political polarization. Laurence Kotlikoff's piece on Bloomberg View last week predicts "A Third-Party Candidate is Coming". Thomas Friedman's latest column says we need to "Make Way for the Radical Center". At Roll Call, Stuart Rothenberg laments that the center of the electorate "Can't Hold if There Isn't One Left.

Public discontent is growing, a groundswell for centrist alternatives is snowballing, and groups like No Labels are getting more attention. That tinderbox of discontent could just need the right spark to alight into a popular, centrist to moderate Tea Party type movement, sans the wingnut hyperbole, to unite the country and toss some of the corrupt and disconnected people out of office who have so poorly represented the views of the American people for so long.

Jeff Greenfield wrote a post that got a lot of buzz last week, talking about how one potential silver lining of the economic calamity that could come from a government default could be an "I'm MAD AS HELL, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" moment. This explosion of patriotic expression, in his fictional future report, leads to a centrist third party rising up and a bipartisan ticket taking the White House.

As much as there is almost nothing I'd rather see happen than this rising up, nothing is worth the loss of jobs and economic activity that a double dip recession would bring. But this scenario isn't as far fetched as one might think. In fact, a deep pocketed organization by the name of Americans Elect is aiming to do just that... get a bipartisan ticket of moderates on the ballot in all 50 states.

Unlike what some have said, Americans Elect is not a new political party. They are an organization that is just getting a bipartisan ticket where each candidate cannot be of the same party of the other, and holding an online primary where a member of one party will have to share the presidential ticket with a member of another, or an independent. They have no network of local chapters, and are organized as a 501(c)4, so called "Super PAC."

Just like any other candidate campaign, whoever ends up winning this online primary will have to put together a national campaign, and raise tens of millions of dollars, to have any chance of a good showing, much less a victory. If an economic collapse does happen, following a default, then something like this might be winnable.

But the more likely scenario is that of what most people who run for president are actually doing -  most people who technically run for president aren't running to win, they're running to raise their profile nationally. Sometimes this is so they can be seen as more of a contender next time, and sometimes they use the new fame in other ways. Barring that game changing event that drives the sleeping giant in the center into the streets, this is what I see the real promise of Americans Elect is this year - building the foundation for something bigger to come.

Regardless of the success of this one effort, it's clear that groups, campaigns, organizations and parties are springing up all over the country, in response to two major parties that continue to not listen. How long until that breaking point comes along is almost entirely up to the two major parties. The only question is whether it will happen slowly, growing from the ground up, or in a burst of centrist populist rage that follows a political disaster.

Solomon Kleinsmith is a nonprofit worker, serial social entrepreneur and strident centrist independent blogger from Omaha, Nebraska. His website, Rise of the Center, is the fastest growing blog targeting centrist independents and moderates.

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Comments [6]

redfish from Encino, CA, USA

Solomon,

The history of how we got to where we are now is a little bit more complicated a story than that.

First, on the Republican side -- Once Bush was elected, Republicans were all ready to roll out a plan to partially-privatize Social Security. They had a majority of both houses, so it could have passed if they won the media fight on, but the effort fizzled out when the Iraq war started and the attention of the party shifted to defending the war efforts. So their plans to cut spending lost to the politics of the day, but you can't say they didn't want to do it. The charge that Republicans were never interested in cutting spending was always a bit unfair.

Overall, I've never questioned the desire of the Republicans to slash government. Part of the problem with Republicans can be that they want to cut too much, and pretend there aren't any alternatives. They focus on minor parts of the budget, like the DEA, the NEA, NPR, and NASA and then claim that slashing those things are necessary to solve our long-term debt. If they pull back on their desire to cut government, it’s always because of pressure from the Democrats.

Even without cutting spending, they ended up cutting taxes. But the charge that it made a huge whole in our debt was always really baseless. Revenues fell for about one year, but every year after first drop that until the economic collapse, revenues started creeping up and our deficit closed in. Even if the increased tax revenue wasn't because of the tax cuts, you can at least say it happened in spite of them.

On the Democratic side, you can at least give President Obama credit for focusing his attention on health care; we do need to reform Medicare to deal with our debt. But the deficit always seemed more of an excuse to do a health care plan; the deficit reduction numbers were never believable; and he made no (sincere) effort to include Republicans, even after running as "post-partisan". so that's why it blew up.

On the current issue, this is what Republicans are right about: we need to cut spending, and not raise taxes. And that's the compromise we'll end up getting, whether its the Boehner plan or the Reid plan. The Tea Party idea that we let the debt ceiling stand where its at is obviously extreme, but its not going to happen and everyone knows it. Tea Party people know it also; they're just using it as a bargaining chip. They could have been more moderate, but then we would be ending up with a plan that raised taxes and didn't end up cutting spending much. The Balanced Budget Amendment also would have never been brought back to the table. A "grown-up" in the room (ie Obama) really isn't really going to be needed in this case; the process is going to do fine without one.

I think its wrong to see willingness to compromise is always seen as a good thing, and obstinancy as always a bad thing. The center isn't always won through back room deals.

Jul. 29 2011 12:25 AM
Pete Mare from Queens, NY

As a centrist, I want to know why Obama let Bush tax cuts continue. As a centrist I want to know why cancer for the first responders is not covered. Obama has failed the centrists on these two issues. I voted for him because McCain and Palin would continue the Chaney Bush reign. We need a third party with new ideas. Move the United Nations from United States to Gaza. This would promote employment and employment leads to peace. Have every person take Ubiquinone and Ubiquinol as recommended by Doctors Oz and Mercola. Under age 40, Ubiquinone (Coenzyme Q 10) anyone over 40 take Ubiquinol. I propose that we have a third party called the CoQ10 Party. Everyone takes CoQ10 and our natural immune system will function at 100%. Health insurance claims will be lowered. Need for Pharmaceuticals will decrease. CoQ10 gives Oxygen to every cell. Ask the computer if Cancer can live in a cell that has Oxygen? As Lionel says, Comment As You See Fit.

Jul. 28 2011 08:21 PM
Solomon Kleinsmith from Omaha, NE

No Labels does not consider Obama a centrist from anything I've seen. They respect him when he compromises. A centrist is someone who stands in the center to start with. Obama comes to the center by compromising. That doesn't make him a centrist any more than I would be a liberal if I were an elected official and I compromised with democrats to put together enough votes to pass something.

I think Perot hit a nerve back then, but is not a fit with what the country needs right now. The Reform party had a definite right lean to it as well.

"A question for you though: is it really a tension between one side that won't accept cuts and live within its means and another side that won't increase revenue?"

At this exact moment, no. The dems are clearly more in the right right now. If this third party existed in the center, a compromise bill would have probably already passed, with the combined votes of democrats and centrists. We also would have likely avoided the individual mandate fiasco, the stimulus would have been more focused on things that actually promote growth and TARP would have come with much harsher strings attached.

The big picture is both parties got us into the mess we're in over the last generation or two. Dems have indeed been far more willing to spend more than tax more, and the GOP has been more than willing to cut taxes without making the difficult choices of making an equal amount of cuts in spending. Put those together and you come to where we are now.

And you don't need a majority in the House to win, you just need to keep both sides from a majority. So if your candidate won the most electoral votes, you could say to them that they could get important cabinet positions (or some other kind of sweetener) for their votes, otherwise you'll go to the other side and they'll be out of power.

Jul. 28 2011 05:40 PM
redfish from Encino, CA, USA

I'm a centrist, I don't vote for either party, supported Ross Perot, and actually worked within the Reform Party in the 90s. I definitely don't see eye-to-eye with Republicans, or with Tea Party conservatives, but I have a bigger problem with so-called centrist groups like "No Labels" who I think are anything but.

The problem I see is they seem to be more interested in a type of "knee-jerk" centrism, always supporting compromise in an argument, and always seeing each side as having an extreme position, even if they aren't. In the 90s, Ross Perot was a big advocate for a Balanced Budget Amendment, and I don't know if anyone remembers, but he also argued for a transition of Social Security to a private retirement fund. For those who don't remember or are too young to remember, see here:

http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/74726-1

In a reject interview, Perot made some positive comments about Paul Ryan's plan:

http://www.freakonomics.com/2008/12/10/ross-perot-answers-your-questions/

Perot is often cited by groups like "No Labels" as an example of a centrist, but I guess this puts him in agreement with the extreme right Tea Party fringe, doesn't it?

Now its true that Perot supported tax increases in addition to spending cuts, including raising the gas tax -- something that conservatives would have never supported. But gas prices are now too high to tax; and calls for tax increases now in general are usually justifications to avoid Social Security and Medicare reform. "Why should we reform Social Security and put a burden on the middle class when we can just tax the rich?" Its used as a distraction, rather than a serious part of a policy platform.

The hero of No Labels generally ends up being President Obama, who they cite as being a centrist like Ross Perot, despite the fact that Perot likes Paul Ryan and supports a Balanced Budget Amendment. Here is John Avlon, one of the co-founders of No Labels, praising Obama as "the grown-up in the room":

http://johnavlon.com/my_column/obama/in-debt-talks-obama-as-grown-up-in-the-room-cnn-com-1521

Most of the other co-founders of No Labels have connections to the Clintons:

http://dagblog.com/reader-blogs/not-left-not-right-forward-10948

Mark Salter, another member of No Labels, has suggested Michael Bloomberg as a "centrist" and described him as a "saner, more experienced Ross Perot". But Michael Bloomberg is a technocrat and control freak who was pushing a "salt ban" in NYC restaurants.

I think groups like No Labels make it more difficult for real, honest centrism : centrism thats based on an objective analysis of issues rather than Clintonesque triangulation. I still have major problems with the Tea Party movement on issues like free trade and campaign finance reform. But as a centrist, their approach to the budget is closer to my tastes. I'm still unsure about how a Balanced Budget Amendment would work. Who goes to jail if the budget isn't balanced? But at least the idea is on the right track.

Jul. 28 2011 01:52 PM
Justin Krebs from NYC

Solomon -

I agree with you that the current impasse is politically-manufactured. A question for you though: is it really a tension between one side that won't accept cuts and live within its means and another side that won't increase revenue?

Or is it a tension between one side willing to compromise and another side unwilling to?

Right now, Democratic leaders -- specifically President Obama and Senator Reid -- are proposing compromises that make the progressive wing of the Democratic party shiver -- putting die-hard liberals like me in the tough position of whether to support a compromise that gets the deal done, or stick by our principles and risk sinking a compromise.

The fact is, though, that Reid will be able to push this compromise through with Democratic support. We're facing something very different in the House where the die-hard conservatives aren't willing to budge.

I ask because I'm not sure what middle road a 3rd party walks to break a stalemate like this.

That said, I agree with you that if other candidates, parties, PACs or initiatives can shake up this unfortunate duopoly, anything that reorders the current balance could be a good thing.

Jul. 28 2011 10:31 AM

The obstacles which face any group attempting to form a winning third party [operative word: 'winning',] are formidable. It is necessary to win sufficient seats in at least one house of Congress to control it, either through majority rule or by blocking legislation through parliamentary procedures. To occupy the White House alone is to make opponents of both major parties.

The multiple forces of gerrymandering, corporate donations and old fashioned ward healing militate against success.

The nearest thing we have to a third party now is the conglomerate called the Tea Party. I suspect that the country must first have a fling with unfettered Republican/conservative rule before seeking a more centrist slate and agenda.

We are living in interesting times.

Jul. 28 2011 08:13 AM

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