However, what makes so much of the great middle of the electorate most uncomfortable about signing on with the Democratic Party is the same thing that has made them uncomfortable since McGovern—the sense that the anti-military instincts of the left half of the party, no matter how sincere and well meaning, render prospective Democratic presidents untrustworthy as guardians of national security. It’s no accident that Bill Clinton was elected and reelected (and Al Gore won his popular majority) during the decade when peace reigned supreme, after the Cold War and before 9/11.
The Bush administration’s colossal mismanagement of the occupation of Iraq is not about to make lots of Americans discover their inner pacifist, either. Rather, they will simply crave someone who is sensible, thoughtful, and competent as well as “tough” in his geopolitical m.o. If Iraq is souring most Americans on the Republican brand of dreamy, wishful, recklessly sketchy foreign policy, the result will not and should not be a pendulum swing to its dreamy, wishful, recklessly sketchy left-wing Democratic counterpart.
Wait, wait, the vestigial Democrat in me pleads, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are certainly not peace-at-any-price appeasers, and, Howard Dean aside, most of the party bigwigs have strenuously, carefully avoided endorsing a cut-and-run approach in Iraq.
The problem is “strenuously” and “carefully”: People know tactical dissembling when they see it, whether it’s liberal Democrats hiding their true feelings about military force or Republican Supreme Court nominees hiding their true feelings about abortion law. And Democrats who are sincerely tough-minded on national security are out of sync not only with much of their base but also with one of the party’s core brand attributes. The Democrats remain the antiwar party, notwithstanding the post-9/11 growth of the liberal-hawk caucus—just as the Republicans are still the white party, notwithstanding George Bush’s manifest friendliness to individual people of color.
So the simple question is this: Why can’t we have a serious, innovative, truth-telling, pragmatic party without any of the baggage of the Democrats and Republicans? A real and enduring party built around a coherent set of ideas and sensibility—neither a shell created for a single charismatic candidate like George Wallace or Ross Perot, nor a protest party like the Greens or Libertarians, with no hope of ever getting more than a few million votes in a presidential election. A party that plausibly aspires to be not a third party but the third party—to winning, and governing.
Let the present, long-running duopoly of the Republicans and Democrats end. Let the invigorating and truly democratic partisan flux of the American republic’s first century return. Let there be a more or less pacifist, anti-business, protectionist Democratic Party on the left, and an anti-science, Christianist, unapologetically greedy Republican Party on the right—and a robust new independent party of passionately practical progressives in the middle.
It’s certainly time. As no less a wise man than Alan Greenspan said last month, the “ideological divide” separating conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats leaves “a vast untended center from which a well-financed independent presidential candidate is likely to emerge in 2008 or, if not then, in 2012.”
Why can’t we have a serious, innovative, truth-telling, pragmatic party without any of the baggage of the Democrats and Republicans?
And it’s possible—indeed, for a variety of reasons, more so than it’s been in our lifetimes. In 1992, a megalomaniacal kook with no political experience, running in a system stacked powerfully against third parties, won 19 percent of the presidential vote against a moderate Democrat and moderate Republican—and in two states, Perot actually beat one of the major-party candidates. In 1912, former president Teddy Roosevelt, running as a third-party progressive, got more votes than Taft, the Republican nominee. The Republicans, remember, began as a dicey new party until their second nominee, Lincoln, managed to get elected president.
It wouldn’t be easy or cheap to create this party. It would doubtless require a rich visionary or two—a Bloomberg, a Steve Jobs, a Paul Tudor Jones—to finance it in the beginning. And since a new party hasn’t won the presidency in a century and a half, it would have to struggle for credibility, to convince a critical mass of voters that a vote for its candidates would be, in the near term, an investment in a far better political future and not simply a wasted ballot.
Is this a quixotic, wishful conceit of a few disgruntled gadflies? Sure. This is only a magazine; we’re only writers. But the beautiful, radical idea behind democracy was government by amateurs. As the historian Daniel J. Boorstin wrote, “An enamored amateur need not be a genius to stay out of the ruts he has never been trained in.” We have a vision if not a true platform, sketches for a party if not quite a set of blueprints. Every new reality must start with a set of predispositions, a scribbled first draft, an earnest dream of the just possibly possible. In our amateur parlor-game fashion we are very serious about trying to get the conversation started, and moving in the right direction.