EDITORIAL: Waiting for the centrist Superman

Third-party candidates hurt the incumbent most

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Every four years around the time the presidential primaries begin to wrap up, the drumbeat from pundits begins: If only a centrist superhero would swoop in and save the day, espousing bold self-control and a issuing a resounding call to pragmatism. Sorry to ruin the fantasy for you, but Superman doesn’t exist.

Thomas Friedman and Morton Kondracke are the latest commentators to veer into the political median. Mr. Friedman is promoting the candidacy of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, while Mr. Kondracke has mentioned a variety of possible candidates for the Americans Elect online nomination process. Both believe President Obama is unwilling to deal decisively with the country’s economic problems, and that the Republicans are unable to.

One of the flaws in this argument is the idea that the parties have moved so far to their respective wings that the center is up for grabs. “With Republicans moving ever further to the right and Democrats to the left,” Mr. Kondracke writes, “there really is a crying need for a centrist alternative.” It’s true Mr. Obama is poised to drop off the left edge of sanity any day now, but the GOP has spent the last six months rejecting more conservative candidates to settle on Mitt Romney as the presumptive nominee. This is not like 1980 when failed Republican candidate John Anderson set himself up as the moderate alternative to Ronald Reagan. Mr. Anderson wound up with 7 percent of the vote, taken mostly from erstwhile supporters of President Carter.

The fact that their candidates have little chance of winning doesn’t faze the middlemen. “All third-party candidates in the past have failed to win,” Mr. Kondracke writes, “but some have moved - or scared - the major parties into addressing issues they were otherwise avoiding.” He doesn’t list a single example of such an influential loser, however. And if an issue is important enough to mobilize public support behind an insurgent movement, it’s the issue itself which the established parties respond to, not a failed candidate.

Advocates for intrepid centrism lack a compelling message. Mr. Friedman writes that the 2012 election will be about “hard choices, smart investments and shared sacrifices” involving “near-term, job-growing improvements in infrastructure and education and on a long-term pathway to serious fiscal, tax and entitlement reform.” Any candidate could spout those bromides, and most do. Positions like this pretend to be radical but read like every policy brief ever written.

Third-party candidates only play spoiler roles. Ross Perot did this most effectively in 1992 when he gave those upset with George H.W. Bush’s tax policies a way to cast a protest vote. He helped Bill Clinton skate into office with only 43 percent of the popular vote. In 2000, the third-party curse fell on Democrats. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader amassed 97,000 votes in Florida. Had only a small portion of them gone to the Democrats, Al Gore would have won the race. In most other elections, third-party candidates have no measurable impact.

It’s possible that Americans Elect will produce a candidate who will briefly capture the national spotlight, or a billionaire may buy his way into the race. But like 1980, this would mainly harm the incumbent. The last thing Mr. Obama needs is another John Anderson reminding America how Carteresque he is.

The Washington Times

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