As should be apparent by now, Donald Trump’s election in 2016 convinced a lot of people that absolutely anything in presidential politics is now possible. That includes really strange things like a candidacy for the lawyer of a porn star who’s suing the current incumbent; a Democratic field that includes multiple preening billionaires; and all sorts of unlikely scenarios involving GOP primary challenges to the figure who stands athwart his party like a colossus. So it’s no big surprise that the Trump era is producing a revival of the ancient fantasy of a centrist third-party ticket that will sweep away the warring tribes of left and right and elevate a Government of National Salvation that will do serious adult things like cutting Social Security benefits.
The latest version of this fantasy comes to us from the imagination of Juleanna Glover, a veteran Republican campaign operative who appears to have ascended into the stratosphere of Beltway insiders who form bipartisan lobbying shops and fête each other in the cramped and self-regarding Washington social scene (better known as the site of the legendary Georgetown cocktail parties where all the sharp edges of politics are softened). To her credit, Glover isn’t promoting some abstract third party of sensible centrists, but a very specific 2020 coalition to be led by Joe Biden:
The Democratic primary is shaping up to be cacophonous and chaotic. Biden should capitalize on his status as one of America’s most popular politicians, skip the risk and potential indignities of running and losing in what will be a vicious and mulish, leftward-lurching primary, and slingshot straight to the general election debate stage on a third-party ticket.
Her model is the hypothetical 2008 McCain-Lieberman ticket that the late Arizonan regretted not insisting upon. Glover doesn’t mention that this failed to happen not because McCain didn’t pursue it but because he was reliably informed it would have turned his nominating convention into a seething snake pit of recriminations. But let’s put that aside for a moment and let her riff:
Biden could run as the major third-party candidate with a principled conservative by his side (Lieberman, a one-time Democrat, technically categorized himself as an independent at the time McCain ran for president). A number of Republicans stand out: Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, outgoing Ohio Gov. John Kasich and newly minted Utah Sen. Mitt Romney.
It’s unclear whether Glover’s enthusiasm for a Biden-Romney ticket is the product of panic over a possible Trump reelection (she is a hard-core NeverTrump Republican with long-standing ties to the pope of NeverTrumpism, Bill Kristol) or excitement at what an administration freed of party constraints might accomplish:
A Biden-led bipartisan ticket would pledge to serve a Cincinnatus-like single term and address all of the U.S.’s ticking time bombs like Social Security, Medicare, health care reform, climate change, money in politics, immigration, gerrymandering and infrastructure investment in four years.
Presumably, this means that Biden has secretly harbored over his many decades in public life an unlikely hostility to Social Security and Medicare as “ticking time bombs,” and that Romney has recently changed his mind about climate change, money in politics, and immigration (where he was in many respects Trump before Trump). More generally, it reflects the idea that most of the issues that separate Ds from Rs are not matters of principle, but of petty partisanship, featuring differences that can be worked out over, well, cocktails in Georgetown.
It’s not clear how other divisive issues would be worked out in a Biden-Romney administration. Would the two men flip coins over Supreme Court appointments that might determine whether women continue to enjoy reproductive rights, or whether corporations are essential guarantors of freedom and prosperity? And would Biden have exclusive possession of the nuclear codes, or would Romney get to keep them on weekends?
Glover doesn’t tell us any of that, but she does spend some time explaining how this miracle is supposed to happen once it’s gotten over the obstacle that Biden and Romney have been members of opposing political parties their entire lives. She allows as how the third party shouldn’t aim at knocking the presidential election into the House of Representatives, since Trump would probably prevail there thanks to GOP control of a majority of House delegations. So Biden and Romney should go for the gold:
Done right, a Biden-led, third-party bid with a TV-savvy campaign team and a pledge to serve only four years with a nonpartisan agenda could win outright.
How do we know this? I guess because a coarse real-estate developer turned reality TV star won in 2016. Glover seems to think the main problems the movement would face are money — here she proposes a crowdfunded effort — and the little problem that Biden might decide that the more conventional partisan route to the presidency that has worked for the last couple of centuries is a better bet.
Do I expect Biden to embrace this idea right away? No. Right now, only polls showing a third-party candidate winning a plurality of votes in some configuration of states adding up to close to 270 will upend conventional wisdom. I would wager a lot that something like a Biden/Romney ticket would have a shot at doing just that.
Later she admits: “I know: It sounds crazy.” That’s true, and not just because of one or two or three problems with the scenario, but because the whole thing is a house of cards built on a moving train crossing an unstable fault line. America’s party system, with all its faults, reflects real and durable differences of opinion about the purpose of self-government and its values and procedures. Even in the age of Trump, it’s a better bet than government by cocktail party.