March 22nd, 2008 by Rightsideup

Jack Cafferty of CNN has an article asking whether America needs a third party, an idea apparently thrown up recently by Chuck Hagel.

The opening two paragraphs of the piece are as follows:

The U.S. needs independent leadership and maybe even a new political party.

Senator Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican and one of the very few class acts in Washington, has a new book out, “America: Our Next Chapter.” Hagel writes, “In the current impasse, an independent candidate for the presidency, or a bipartisan unity ticket… could be appealing to Americans.”

The first line / paragraph isn’t in quotes, so I’m guessing it’s Cafferty’s own view. But it appears to closely mirror Hagel’s, as taken from his book. Because the rest of the context is missing we don’t know what the “impasse” is that Hagel refers to here. Apparently he believes there’s a big problem with the current two-party system, which is ironic in the middle of one of the most interesting and hard-fought primary campaigns of recent years, which is likely to remain a closely-run campaign as it moves past the primaries and into the presidential election itself.

It’s as if Hagel is projecting his own uncertain party political identity onto the electorate. This is the man who has famously been one of the least Republican Republicans in Congress, mulled switching to the other side and/or running with Bloomberg as an independent. It’s not at all clear that this guy has any kind of following – he just seems to have decided that he’s not really going to make it to the big time in either of the existing parties and he’s figuring out what’s next. I lost count of the number of times he held a press conference about whether or not he was running for president only to tell the assembled media he was still undecided, but I’d hate to think how indecisive he’d become if he had three parties to choose from…

More seriously, though, this idea raises its head every few years, and it’s always nonsense. Third parties – be they the Green Party, the Reform Party, Libertarians or others, have fared pretty miserably in presidential elections, and the only times they’ve affected the outcome they’ve pushed the result toward the candidate with views most like their own. The current parties may not be perfect, and most people may have to take the rough with the smooth in order to embrace one or the other, but the fact is that people tend to identify more with either the party that believes government should be solving all our problems or that individuals have the power to do so; and with the party that believes that all behavior is moral or the party that believes there should still be limits on proper behavior, and that we should teach those to our children.

Obama’s campaign is actually an interesting test of what the kind of third-party Hagel is proposing would look like, which appears to be more about not being one of the other two parties than about any independent identity. To the extent that Obama is attempting to run by focusing on higher things and obfuscating his positions on the issues, he is mirroring the Hagel strategy. But, even with a large chunk of the Democratic party behind him, charisma and a gift for oratory, the man is not running away with the nomination, let alone the election. How would he have been received if this was all he had to offer, minus the oratorical gifts and the charming persona? He would have been left in the dust long ago. Add back the gifts and personality, and the party becomes about an individual and not ideas, which is a problem with Obama’s own candidacy but also with many of the third parties we’ve had of late.

Although I used the parties’ names above, I might easily have replaced two of them with the names of Ralph Nader and Ross Perot, because they effectively were their parties. And the cult of personality is the fastest way to dictatorship and bad decisions. Yes, we elect an individual in the US, and not a party as in the UK or other countries, but always as the head of a party with a separate identity, a platform of campaign promises, and an infrastructure of elected and unelected officials to hold to account.

Hagel’s best hope for a real shot at a presidential campaign may well be in the form of a third-party or independent ticket, but the best hope for the rest of us is to stick with the two parties we have, and if they need changing, to do so from within.