Does America need another party?

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Friday, April 30, 2010; 7:59 PM

Britain's Nick Clegg. Florida's Charlie Crist. Would U.S. politics benefit from a third party? Below, assessments from Martin Frost, Newt Gingrich, John Anderson, Dan Schnur, Mark Penn and Keith Appell.

MARTIN FROST

Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 1995 to 1998; representative from Texas from 1979 to 2005

A third party in the United States might appeal to some, but it could have a dramatic and unwelcome effect on how we elect presidents if it weren't accompanied by electoral college reform.

Under our current system, if no presidential candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes, the election is thrown into the U.S. House of Representatives, with each state having one vote.

Should a third party win any significant share of the electoral vote by carrying a few states, elections would routinely be decided in the House. You could have a very undemocratic result, with one candidate winning the most popular votes and another candidate winning the election in the House because of the number of state delegations his or her party controls. This result can occur in the electoral college in a two-candidate race, but it rarely does.

Also, even if the same candidate placed first in the popular vote and then won the vote in the House, his or her election could be seen as less than legitimate because of the general disgust the country has for Congress.

Our current system provides for an orderly transfer of power. A third party could make us look institutionally unstable and lead to all kinds of backroom deals in Congress that may not serve the national interest.

NEWT GINGRICH

Republican speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999

One of the great strengths of the American system has been its two-party structure. For virtually America's entire history two parties have been the centers of organized political effort. The collapse of the Whig Party and its replacement by the Republican Party has been the only significant change in a two-party structure that has existed since the election of 1828.

There are two powerful virtues to this structure. First, it forces both parties to accommodate a broad range of interests internally and makes internal compromise unavoidable. This leads to a conflict- and values-management process with much greater adaptability than the multi-party models in which each party is a center of rigid beliefs.

Second, it focuses responsibility. When Republicans failed to manage things effectively, they were held responsible. Democrats are now being held responsible. Multiparty systems blur responsibility and focus on politician-to-politician negotiating rather than politician-to-citizen accountability. That is not a path America should follow.

JOHN ANDERSON

Republican representative from Illinois from 1961 to 1981; member of the board of FairVote

It's no secret that I believe Americans deserve elections with more than two choices. I offered an independent candidacy for president in 1980 because my priorities were different from those of my opponents. Millions agreed and were more likely to vote and think about issues involving the environment, taxation and foreign policy that otherwise would have been ignored.

Third parties and independents, in fact, regularly contest our elections despite voting rules that deny their reality. They help us hold the major parties accountable and sometimes win, as was true of my friend Lowell Weicker, a former governor of Connecticut, and as may happen this year in Florida and Rhode Island.

I fervently hope that we join most of the civilized world in adopting proportional representation to open our legislatures to new voices. But broader consensus can be achieved more quickly for a simple rule change that would accommodate more choice: the "instant runoff" alternative voting system used in Australia and a growing number of American cities. Australians had an average of seven candidates in their last House races, yet every winner earned an electoral majority, and no candidate was criticized as a "spoiler." It's time to enrich our politics by embracing voter choice in America.

DAN SCHNUR

Director of the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics; communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign

There's no such thing as a raging moderate.

Periodically, the aggrieved centrists in one or the other of the two major parties make noise about the need for a new, centrist political entity that will free the country from the grip of liberal and conservative extremists. There's a legitimate argument to be made that the hyperpartisanship that increasingly dominates the nation's political conversation is preventing much of the cooperation that's needed to address our most critical policy challenges. But it's unlikely that a third party is the magical solution to those problems, and identifying and cultivating the necessary emotional firepower to make that party into reality is even less likely.

For those donors and activists who do think a third party is necessary, the next six months present the best opportunity they've had in many, many years. If angry centrists from across the country converged on Florida to elect its governor to the U.S. Senate, that would be precisely the type of jump-start that a new national party would need. And a movement that included Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), and other besieged middle-of-the-road political figures could conceivably remake the American political landscape. But when moderates get angry, by definition, they are no longer moderate. So don't hold your breath waiting for that third party to happen anytime soon.

MARK PENN

Chief executive of Burson-Marsteller; adviser to Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign; pollster and adviser to Bill Clinton from 1995 through 2000

So starbucks has 155 combinations of coffee but America and Great Britain only have two parties?

The election in Britain could be a game changer if the Liberal Democrats get nearly 30 percent of the vote. For the first time the major parties agreed to debates, and the results so far have been stunningly favorable for the outsider party.

In the United States, we have the structural issue that there are many Democrats who are socially liberal and economically more conservative than the leadership. And the Republicans have many members who believe in the economic philosophy of the party but reject the religious right. Both groups are not entirely comfortable with their party and have see-sawed in their voting.

On top of this, we have a record number of independents in the country, along with new, open media and Supreme Court rulings that make it easier and easier for non-party interests to participate in politics. This is why it is critically important for Democrats to welcome the vital center.

But if party primaries are driven farther to the left and the right by partisans, we are going to see more independent candidates at all levels. It's part of the natural change in politics, and I think all eyes will be on Britain to see the final result.

KEITH APPELL

Republican strategist, former national spokesman for Steve Forbes' presidential campaign and senior vice president of CRC Public Relations

The rise of the Tea Party movement is a healthy manifestation of our democracy.

Much media attention has been paid in recent days to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's decision to go independent. But Crist's switch is less about third parties than about his inability to win a Republican primary while his state suffers from record unemployment even after he embraced President Obama and his stimulus package.

On the broader issue, the Tea Party movement has driven much of the political discussion in recent months and has motivated many thousands who weren't previously politically active and brought them together with veterans, retirees and small-business people who legitimately see the growth of government and deepening debt as red flags.

Additionally, it has been fascinating to watch the media's evolving definition of the Tea Partyers from ignorant Obama opponents to "AstroTurf" (as though these people weren't real grass roots) to angry mob to being motivated by racial distrust. The movement stems from Washington's elitist disconnect from common constituents: enacting consequential legislation without reading it (stimulus); enacting far-reaching legislation over public opposition (health care); and an overall instinct for lecturing instead of listening.

Like Crist, congressional Democrats now own this agenda. Like Crist, they face unfavorable economic conditions. Democrats may suffer the consequences Crist is likely to face in November.


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