The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

June 26, 2008

The (third) party pooper

About this time in a race for high office, it is commonplace to rue the dearth of “quality” candidates, and to pine for an alternative for each party’s final candidates.

Some pine for an alternative to the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. We have, of course, a lot more than two parties; officially the Democratic and Republican parties are joined by the Wisconsin Green Party, the Libertarian Party and the Constitution Party.

Our Founding Fathers — and, for that matter, the founders of Wisconsin — did not intend for our country or our state to be a two-party system. (In fact, political parties aren’t mentioned at all in the U.S. Constitution.) The Democratic Party dates back to Thomas Jefferson, and it was in existence when Wisconsin joined the Union in 1848. The Republican Party was formed in Ripon six years later from, in part, the old Whig Party.

Third parties (the catchall name for parties not named Democratic or Republican) are prominent in our state’s political history, as entertainingly chronicled by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute's Christian Schneider. Everyone who graduated from a Wisconsin high school knows about Wisconsin's Progressive Party (as opposed to Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party), first a part of the Republican Party, then a separate party that essentially supplanted the Democratic Party for much of the first half of the 20th century, and then part of the Democratic Party. Milwaukee has had three Socialist Party mayors.

Schneider notes that George W. Bush could have won Wisconsin in both 2000 and 2004 given that his margin of defeat to Al Gore was much smaller in both elections than the total number of third-party presidential votes. (In 2000, Gore won by 5,708 votes, which is less than 5 percent of the total of votes cast for third-party or independent candidates, including Libertarian Harry Browne, Reform candidate Pat Buchanan, Natural Law Party candidate John Hagelin, Socialist Workers Party candidate James E. Harris, Workers World Party candidate Monica Moorehead, Ralph Nader, Constitution Party candidate Howard Phillips, and write-ins.) As for 2008, the New Republic’s Tucker Carlson wrote a frequently amusing account of following around Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, who served as a third-party candidate during the Republican primary.

(Trivia question: Who is Albert Schmedeman? Trivia answer: Between 1900 and 1958, he was the only Democratic governor of Wisconsin, serving one two-year term from 1933 to 1935. “Fighting Bob” La Follette’s sons, Robert Jr. and Phil, were Republican, respectively, U.S. senator and governor, switching to the Progressive Party in the 1934 election.)

Minnesota had its own experience with a third party governor when professional wrestler-turned-suburban mayor Jesse Ventura was elected governor in 1998, running on the Reform Party ticket, before affiliating himself with the Independence Party of Minnesota. (You may recall that the Reform Party was created by H. Ross Perot so he could run for president in 1992. Apparently, Ventura never received the Reform Party’s imprimatur, and after 2000, when archconservative Buchanan got the Reform Party’s presidential nomination, Ventura didn’t want it.)

Ventura was almost completely useless in office for the obvious reason that beleaguers all third-party candidates: He had no base of support in the Minnesota Legislature. Having to cobble together coalitions on every issue when there is no one else with your own party label requires political savvy at the bare minimum. This is the most convincing evidence of those who claim that third-party votes are wasted. To get elected is not enough, something that Ventura learned.

As has been pointed out before, third parties usually serve to hurt incumbents; Perot helped Bill Clinton get elected in 1992 (and then prevented Clinton from getting to 50 percent of the vote in 1996), Nader helped George W. Bush get elected in 2000, and Republicans are concerned that Libertarian Bob Barr will siphon off votes that otherwise would go to John McCain this fall. In Wisconsin, Libertarian Ed Thompson managed to pull enough votes away from Republican Gov. Scott McCallum to put Democrat Doyle in the Executive Residence. (Schneider isn’t sure of that conclusion, but I am; there isn’t another persuasive explanation as to how Doyle could be elected governor with just 45 percent of the vote, in the same way that Clinton was elected president with 43 percent of the vote.)

Third parties obviously have the right to exist, but, as Democrats will tell you, not only do they usually fail in their electoral goals, but their presence often backfires on their political goals. Only rabid left-wingers and Nader could claim that there were no significant differences between Gore and Bush in 2000, and the word "traitor" was one of the nicer words Democrats used to describe Nader after 2000. Few political observers think Nader, who is running this year, will have much effect on this year's race, which could be a sign that Barack Obama is sufficiently left-wing to appease most Democrats. More people think Barr, formerly a Republican congressman, will affect McCain's vote totals, given the (inaccurate) perception that McCain's not really a conservative.

In 2010, Wisconsin could have, besides Democratic and Republican candidates for governor, a Wisconsin Greens candidate to the left of the Democrat, a Constitution Party candidate to the right of the Republican, and a Libertarian who's not really a moderate but whose views could fall on the left (social issues) or right (economic issues) of the political spectrum. In an election for governor, the other three's presence wouldn't have much impact on the race, which makes you wonder what the point of a third-party candidacy is. Ed Thompson might have believed there was little difference between Doyle and McCallum, but no one who pays attention to politics argued that in 2002.

The point of a third-party candidacy, of course, is to assert that the big two parties are inadequate — too conservative or too liberal, or whatever it was Perot was arguing in the 1990s. (The point can also be to stick it to your former party, as U.S. Sen. James Jeffords of New Hampshire did by resigning from the GOP, or as U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman did by bolting the Democrats and then getting the ultimate revenge by getting reelected anyway. Jeffords, Lieberman and socialist "independent" Bernie Sanders of Vermont caucus with the Senate Democrats anyway.) Third-party activists seem to argue that it's too much work to make the Republican Party more conservative and less of a me-too party, as supporters of Barry Goldwater did to Ronald Reagan's benefit, or to make the Democratic Party more centrist and electable, as the Democratic Leadership Council did to Clinton's benefit.

I'll believe the Wisconsin Green, Libertarian or Constitution parties are viable political parties when one of their number has an office in the State Capitol.

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