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10.10.11

Third-Party Delusions

With another showdown pending on Capitol Hill, pundits are pining for a centrist third party to solve our political problems. But you shouldn’t believe the hype, says Michael Tomasky.

This is the week the showdown starts. The Senate will take up a procedural vote on Barack Obama’s jobs bill on Tuesday. It will fail. Of course it won’t even be voted on in the House, given that John Boehner and Eric Cantor have already declared it as dead as John Cleese’s parrot. Is there any way to make it undead? It’s a long shot, but there’s only one, and that’s for the president to turn up the heat far higher than he has so far and keep it there. His most important opponents on this won’t be conservatives but the impassioned centrists who mistakenly think the problem in Washington is the dysfunctional two-party system.

There’s been a lot of pining recently for a third party of the center. Tom Friedman likes this idea, as does The Washington Post’s Matt Miller, who’s been pushing it hard lately. They’re both really good columnists. But this is a really bad idea. It doesn’t fix what’s actually the problem, and it will certainly create one huge new one.

Let me cut to the chase and describe the huge new problem a centrist third party would create. It would almost certainly ensure that the United States will have right-wing presidents way into the foreseeable future. Why? Because right now about 40 percent of Americans call themselves conservative, 40 percent moderate, and 20 percent liberal. A moderate candidate will be completely unacceptable to conservatives for any number of reasons. He or she will undoubtedly fail to demonstrate purity on some conservative litmus-test positions: this candidate will be pro-choice, or certainly have a pro-choice running mate to balance things out if s/he is not; s/he will surely be open to tax increases, if s/he is a responsible tribune of moderation; s/he won’t hate Muslims and will counsel a Bloombergesque tolerance toward mosques, even in sacred places; s/he will walk a fine line on Charles Darwin; et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

This candidate will be (if the pieces fall into place as one expects) more or less anti-union and will go after entitlements, so it’s in those senses and a few others that the candidate will be Not a Liberal. But this candidate won’t be a conservative either, by a country mile. All this candidate will accomplish, then, is to split the 60 percent of the vote that isn’t conservative. The Republican nominee will walk away with 40 percent, while the Democrat and the new savior will each get around 30. Suggesting or believing that this won’t be the case requires several arguments about how our politics can change that amount to leaps of faith rather than assessments of facts. It will give the conservatives’ 40 percent the equivalent of majority power, provided the 40 percent sticks together. And it will. It always does. It does in the Senate, where it already has functional majority power. Do we want our electoral system to function like our Senate? If that question doesn’t make you want to move to Greenland, you’ve been spending too much time thinking about Chaz Bono’s dance moves.

People who don’t like “Give ’Em Hell” Obama have the wrong sense of where we are in this political moment. The way to break our political logjam is to crush the Republicans on taxes.

Which gets me to the other point. We don’t need a party of the center because the problem with our political system isn’t the vague “two-party logjam.” It’s that one party won’t let any revenue increases pass. That is the first-order problem. It has been 20 years since a single Republican legislator in Washington voted for a tax increase. Read that again. It’s true. Sure, they’ll occasionally permit little fee increases wrapped inside massive omnibus bills, but nothing more. As a result we had one fairly modest tax increase, in 1993 (after which, mirabile dictu, the economy starting picking up and the deficit withered away to zero, and eventually less than zero), with tax decreases ever since. And, ever since, middle-class earnings have stagnated while the top 1 percent have zoomed ever-further away from everyone else. That is our first-order problem.

We need first to change the Republican Party. A Republican Party even of the 1980s, when the GOP accepted payroll tax increases as part of a balanced deal to save Social Security, would be a godsend. And I have little doubt that if the Republicans gave some ground, Democrats would too. That’s what Democrats do. Democrats in their bones want bipartisan agreement, like in the old days. Obama wanted it so badly this past summer that he looked pitiful trying to pass off that debt deal as bipartisan.

This is why he has no choice right now but to fight. People who don’t like “Give ’Em Hell” Obama have the wrong sense of where we are in this political moment. The way to break this logjam is to crush the Republicans on taxes. When they are forced to abandon that, then our politics will change. A third party doesn’t have anything to do with it. Obama spent two and a half years trying to be accommodating. Now—not for the sake of his future, but of the country’s—he just needs to win this fight.