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Why we need a third party

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So here’s where we are. Our president calls himself “a warrior for the middle class” because he’s campaigning for a plan that might add 2 million new jobs next year at a time when 25 million Americans who want full-time work can’t find it.

If that’s war, what would surrender look like?

Meanwhile, Republican zealots apparently feel that if they can’t cut 0.04 percent of the budget in the next few days they’d rather shut down the government. The party’s presidential candidates boast that a 10-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases isn’t good enough on a long-term debt deal — even though we’re about to double the number of seniors on Social Security and Medicare.

Why should we have to choose between timid half-measures and anti-tax fanaticism? Why doesn’t the president propose measures equal to the scale of our challenges? Why can’t Republicans acknowledge demography or math?

Three reasons, mainly. First, both parties’ chief aim is to win elections, not solve problems. Second, both parties are prisoner to interest groups and ideological litmus tests that prevent them from blending the best of liberal and conservative thinking. Finally, neither party trusts us enough to lay out the facts and explain the steps we need to take to truly fix things.

This goes well beyond the jobs crisis or the budget. Take education. Democrats can’t say we need to fire bad teachers who are blighting the lives of countless kids, because teachers unions are the party’s most powerful interest group. But Republicans can’t say we need to raise salaries for new teachers substantially if we’re going to lure a new generation of talent to the classroom, because that’s admitting that money is part of the answer. Trouble is, we’ll never solve what ails education without getting bad teachers out and paying up for new talent to come in. That means Democrats and Republicans can’t solve the problem.

Or take health care. Republicans say the answer is to repeal President Obama’s reforms — but they won’t offer plans to insure more than 3 million of the 50 million Americans who lack coverage. Yet Democrats want to micromanage providers, protect the trial lawyers who bankroll their campaigns, and fully insulate people from the costs of their own care, assuring that there’s no consumer brake on runaway costs. Again, Democrats and Republicans can’t solve the problem.

Multiply this dynamic across every major issue and you’ll see there’s a staggering void in the debate. The parties act this way because their core constituencies have a stake in a failed status quo. But where does that leave the majority of us who are not in the Republican or Democratic base? Where does it leave the country?

Daniel Patrick Moynihan wisely observed that if issues can’t be discussed, they can never be advanced. Given the abdication of both parties, and the pinched boundaries of debate we’re thus left with, the only way to learn if a constituency can be built for a bold agenda to renew the country is for independent candidates to try to do just that in 2012. This doesn’t mean both parties are equally to blame for Washington’s dysfunction. But they’re unacceptable and disappointing in their own ways. I’m a former Clinton aide who believes President Obama has done many good things, and that his agenda is much better than the current Republican creed. But with America on the road to slow decline, the stakes are too high for “inadequate” and “retrograde” to be our only choices.

As always in a democracy, better leadership starts with better followership. New groups such as Americans Elect and No Labels are showing the way, building the infrastructure and local networks for a new politics of problem-solving. But we’ll never mobilize the “far center” without an agenda around which people can rally. To move this ball forward, I’ve taken a crack at a policy-heavy version of the third-party stump speech we need, to suggest what it would sound like if an independent candidate called seriously for a “decade of renewal.”

“If you build it, he will come” worked baseball magic in “Field of Dreams.” Who knows? Maybe “if you write it, they will come” is the mantra for pundits who pray candidates with the vision and nerve to fill today’s void may yet step forward.

Read Matt Miller’s sample third-party stump speech.

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