Want to end partisan politics? Here’s what won’t work — and what will
By Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, Washington Post, Op-Ed, May 17 – Political dysfunction. Partisanship at record levels. Attack politics run amok. And public approval of Congress scraping the single digits (Sen. John McCain is fond of saying it’s down to blood relatives and paid staff).
We’ve all heard the laments — we’ve made some of them ourselves — that Washington is broken, that our political system can’t grapple with the nation’s big, long-term problems. So what can be done about it? Unfortunately, the cures that get tossed around are often misguided, sometimes even worse than the disease. Here are five much-praised solutions we should avoid, followed by four that have a chance to make a meaningful difference.
1A third party to the rescue
Ah, if only we had a third force, an independent movement that could speak plain truths to the public and ignite the silent, centrist majority around common-sense solutions.
Sound familiar? In recent decades, Ross Perot, John Anderson and George Wallace have pursued a serious third-party route, although only Wallace managed to win any electoral votes. But that hasn’t stopped high-profile columnists such as Tom Friedman of the New York Times and Matt Miller of The Washington Post from singing this siren song, along with former elected officials such as Republican Christine Todd Whitman, Democrat David Boren and many others. The much-hyped Americans Elect group — which was to harness the democratic spirit of the Internet to find a centrist third-party presidential candidate for the 2012 race — is a prime example of this approach.
One problem: Despite Americans’ disgust with our politics, about 90 percent of us identify with — or at least lean toward — one of the two major parties. Among Americans who call themselves independent, two-thirds lean to one of the parties, and behave at the polls just like the partisans. So the core audience for a third party is perhaps 10 percent of the electorate. So-called independents are classic referendum voters; when times are bad, they want to throw the bums out rather than carefully attribute responsibility or parse alternatives.
The third-party fantasy is of a courageous political leader who could persuade Americans to support enlightened policies to tax carbon; reform entitlements; make critical investments in education, energy and infrastructure; and eliminate tax loopholes to raise needed revenue. But there is simply no evidence that voters would flock to a straight-talking, independent, centrist third-party candidate espousing the ideas favored by most third-party enthusiasts. Consensus is not easily built around such issues, and differences in values and interests would not simply disappear in a nonpartisan, centrist haze.
Just ask Americans Elect, which was unable to coalesce around a single candidate, despite spending $35 million.
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