Thomas Friedman recently stirred up his critics, and they are legion, by predicting a serious third-party movement in 2012. The New York Times columnist reports spending time in Silicon Valley and registering an "astounding" level of disgust "with Washington, D.C., and our two-party system — so much so that I am ready to hazard a prediction: Barring a transformation of the Democratic and Republican Parties, there is going to be a serious third party candidate in 2012, with a serious political movement behind him or her — one definitely big enough to impact the election’s outcome." Friedman says coyly there are already serious efforts on both coasts to form such a movement.
Critics of Friedman quickly returned fire. One particularly good essay, by Poliblog's Steven L. Taylor, lays out the obstacle course to this perennial idea. The Electoral College is stacked against third parties, since the candidate with the most votes in a state gets all of the electoral votes. The party system can absorb an insurgency, but it squeezes out third party challenges. A last roadblock is the Senate, where the filibuster rules would be particularly cruel to a President without some kind of party support.
Such problems do not apply to the same degree at the local level. There's a good example of this "revolt from the center" in Idaho, where an attrractive independent named Keith Allred, with support from both parties and a solve-big-problems agenda, is running as a Democrat and doing well, considering how Republican the state is. His playbook comes from Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat who won the Kansas governorship by trans-partisan appeal. (She's now Obama's secretary of health and human services.)
In Allred's case, he started out as an independent business leader trying to forge common solutions to some of Idaho's besetting problems. Democrats talked him into running against incumbent Republican Gov. Butch Otter, who still has a commanding lead in the polls. The two big problems Allred is focusing on during the campaign are creating jobs and improving K-12 education.
Oregon is following the more traditional path, with a conservative former Trailblazer, Chris Dudley, facing off against former Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber.
I recently had a discussion with an admired local politician thinking out loud about how well an independent (possibly him) might do in the governor's race in this state in 2012. Start with the fact that about one-third of the electorate describe themselves as "independents," with a higher percentage in a state such as Washington. Independents themselves come in various stripes: disguised partisans, in some cases, and apathetic in others. A higher percentage are moderates, with the nation roughly dividing into conservatives (40 percent), liberals (20 percent) and moderates.
A likely Washington gubernatorial contest between Rep. Jay Inslee, running on traditional Democratic issues and green tech, and Attorney General Rob McKenna, a libertarian small-government conservative Republican with some interesting moderate streaks, leaves a lot of room for a centrist. In general, the public appetite is there for compelling candidates who can promise to solve big problems in a nonpartisan way that gives wins to both sides. But it would take a strong leader to pull it off. Inslee will probably have a challenger in the primary who leans to the center (Sen. Lisa Brown of Spokane, Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon come to mind), siphoning off more centrist votes. By contrast, McKenna probably has to worry about a Tea Party challenger to his right. (In all this, I'm assuming Gov. Gregoire will not seek a third term.)
The candidate to look for might be a rich person who can self-finance the campaign, spending enough early money to get better known. He or she might come from the new economy and have a track record of effective leadership of dynamic organizations. I used to have a hunch that U.W. President Mark Emmert would hear the siren (even if the pay is not good enough). The likely political launching pad would be a nonpartisan post, like port commissioner, or an office that has a closely split Republican-Democratic electorate, like a county.
Could happen. And if it does, it will start happening right after the November election. Let it happen in enough states, and the momentum for a national third party candidate would build, from below.
Speaking of rich folks, keep an eye on what New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is doing, throwing his endorsements and cash toward centrist candidates from either party. Bloomberg, 68, is an independent as well as being the 10th richest man in the country. He's supporting Democrats including Andrew Cuomo in New York state, Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Republicans such as Meg Whitman in California and Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois.
A similar approach comes from the national organization, Stand for Children, which is active in several states (including Washington and Oregon), steering money and grassroots support to politicians who favor educational reform and have incurred the opposition of teachers' unions. The goal is to protect Democratic politicians who push a reform agenda but might otherwise be punished at the polls by organized opposition.
There is also a new organization, Former Members of Congress for Common Ground, calling on candidates and holders of office to be more civil, more open to compromise, more focused on the common good. (The two signers from Washington are George Nethercutt and Mike McCormack.) Their letter exhorts candidates to:
conduct campaigns for Congress with decency and respect toward opponents, to be truthful in presenting information about self and opponents, to engage in good faith debate about the issues and each other's record, to refrain from personal attack, and if elected, to behave in office according to these same principles, recognizing that all Members endeavor honorably to serve the Nation and their constituents and to advance honestly held beliefs about what is best for the country, and that all must eventually reconcile their differences in the national interest.
Fine words, and a good way to rally the disenfranchised center. But words without organizational clout and real campaign money to empower the center will not do the trick.
The other tack I like would be the formation of a nonpartisan Urban Party that would embrace the broad Seattle metropolitan region, drawing pragmatic centrists into a wide umbrella and a common agenda. At the metro level, partisan politics pretty much fades away, and you automatically get Ds and Rs. Such a new party could recruit candidates, focus campaign donations on a handful who earn the Urban Party's endorsement, and gradually build up a network and a series of courageous positions much less beholden to entrenched interests. Candidates could run with endorsements from a standard party as well as endorsements and cash from the Urban Party.
Here's an example of the kind of bold centrism at the federal level, as proposed by Thomas Friedman:
We have to rip open this two-party duopoly and have it challenged by a serious third party that will talk about education reform, without worrying about offending unions; financial reform, without worrying about losing donations from Wall Street; corporate tax reductions to stimulate jobs, without worrying about offending the far left; energy and climate reform, without worrying about offending the far right and coal-state Democrats; and proper health care reform, without worrying about offending insurers and drug companies.
I invite commenters to provide a local equivalent of this reform agenda.
Since members of the Urban Party would be drawn from city and suburb, urbanists and disenfranchised Republicans, it would occupy the vital center, by definition. As a new, local party, it wouldn't threaten the existing parties; candidates would still seek dual endorsements. Something like this worked well when CHECC (Choose an Effective City Council) provided a bipartisan, idea-rich "party" in the 1960s-70s, eventually electing a majority of the Seattle City Council.
A final word about journalism in all this. Melodrama sells papers, with its vivid narrative, stock characters, simplistic polarization, and lively fireworks. A "constructive journalism," in my view, looks instead at the hidden drama by which people of good will, the majority of those in government, pursue solutions, normally out of the spotlight. Finding that story is harder work. It helps to restore normal citizens' confidence in government. It's closer to the truth of public life. Just how we get back to this kind of journalism in a climate of hyperpartisanship and IEDs may be even more of a challenge, but let's some of us try.