Calling for a third party is a quick and easy way to get yourself booked for a round of cable TV appearances. But many of those calling for a third party are refusing to reckon with an inconvenient fact: One of the two parties already occupies the approximate ideological space that these commentators themselves are describing as the dream middle ground that allegedly can only be staked out by a third party.
That party is known as the “Democratic Party,” and it alreadly holds many of the positions these commentators want a third party to espouse.
I’m open to the claim that the Democratic Party has failed to do a few of the things these commentators would like to see a third party undertake. But I’d argue it’s still incumbent on them to at least acknowledge and reckon with the fact that Dems are far closer than the GOP to filling the fabled ideological middle — as they themselves define it — that supposedly requires a brave third party candidate to articulate a third way.
Here, for instance, is my Post colleague Matt Miller, offering up a well-imagined speech that a third party presidential candidate might give:
How’s this for something different? I want to raise your taxes, cut spending on programs you like, and force you to rethink how we run our schools, banks, armies, hospitals and elections. And I want you to cheer when I’m done. ...
Democrats and Republicans will tell you, as I do, that they want to make America competitive again, keep faith with our deepest values of fairness and opportunity, and fix our broken political system. But the Democrats’ timid half-measures and the Republicans’ mindless anti-government creed can’t begin to get us there.
It’s hard to see how this constitutes “something different.” After all, a major presidential candidate has already said this. His name is Barack Obama, and he’s currently the President — you know, the guy who’s running for reelection. He has repeatedly called for a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts as the only way out of our fiscal mess. Indeed, Obama explicitly said during his Twitter town hall that fixing our fiscal situation will require cutting spending “on programs I like,” using language almost identical to Miller’s imagined third party candidate. Call that just talk if you will, but Obama and Dems already agree to $1 trillion in cuts as part of the debt ceiling deal, and they’ve already agreed that entitlements cuts will be on the table during the supercommittee deliberations on the deficit.
By contrast, the other major political party in America — the GOP — is not open to any kind of balance between tax hikes and spending cuts. Even if you think Dems are not going far enough in their call for spending and entitlement cuts, it’s still a fact that only one of the two parties already is calling for, and has already agreed to, the general concept that supposedly requires a third party candidate to ride to the rescue.
On health care, Miller envisions his third party candidate arguing the following: “Democrats must accept a private insurance industry and Republicans must accept that some people can’t afford decent policies on their own.” Not only have Democrats already “accepted a private insurance industry,” it’s the basis for the reform plan Dems already passed. That one is known as the “Affordable Care Act.” Has it solved all our problems? Of course not, but in many ways it’s a fundamentally centrist first stab at it.
On national security, Miller envisions his third party candidate claimng that “we need to be smart hawks.” But that’s exactly the stance Obama — who famously said he’s not opposed to “all wars,” only “dumb wars” — has adopted. Indeed, from the point of view of many liberals, his policies — on Afghanistan, civil liberties, and the war on terror — embody that stance to a fault.
In fairness to Miller, he has been one of the few commentators willing to call out GOP extremism and intransigence on taxes for what it is. And there are far worse offenders when it comes to the calls for a third party. Tom Friedman has repeatedly called for a third party because, he opines, we need “spending cuts, increases in revenues and investments in the sources of our strength.” In the real world, that’s an endorsement of the Democratic position.
Given this inconvenient overlap between the Democratic Party and the positions these commentators imagine for their fabled third party, they are constantly forced to find ways in which the Democratic Party has not gone far enough in adopting those positions. Hence their constant claim that Dems aren’t willing to embrace ambitious enough entitlement cuts, and hence Miller’s need to draw a false equivalence between the Dems’ “timid half measures” and the GOP’s “mindless anti-government creed.” And they continually reach for other issues on which Dems are not quite in sync with their version of the “center,” such as their failure to take on teachers’ unions. But you can forever continue raising the bar in this fashion.
Indeed, even if you concede the existence of such failings on the part of Dems, it’s still fair to ask why these commentators are so reluctant to acknowledge the vast overlap that does exist between Dems and their imagined third party — and to explain why we need a third party despite that massive overlap. Let’s face it: At bottom, the calls for a third party are founded on a dodge — a refusal to acknowledge that the Democratic Party is far closer than the GOP to occupying the fabled ideological middle that they themselves have defined as the space that only a third party can claim.