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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Third-Party Chimera

My colleague The Moose is off grazing somewhere in the North Woods, and is not blogging at present. But he seems to have gotten into the head of David Brooks, whose New York Times column today channels the Wittmann-esque fantasy of a third-party movement headed by John McCain and Joe Lieberman.I understand the basic idea: the significant share of the electorate that’s palpably sick of partisan wrangling and polarization, and of politics-as-usual in Washington, might gravitate to a new coalition led by two notable heretics from each party.And I also get the premise that third parties tend to emerge based on a radically different set of priorities than those advanced by the two major parties (e.g., the rapid emergence of the Republican Party in the 1850s when Democrats and Whigs were national coalitions determined to ignore the issue of slavery). Thus, theoretically, the vast differences between John McCain and Joe Lieberman on a host of domestic issues might not matter if they represented a consensus on something more important to voters.But that’s where the Brooksian hypothesis breaks down, because he proposes this as the “slavery issue” of our era:

The McCain-Lieberman Party is emerging because the war with Islamic extremism, which opened new fissures and exacerbated old ones, will dominate the next five years as much as it has dominated the last five.

Fine, but as Matt Yglesias notes, it’s not like John McCain or Joe Lieberman exemplifies some sort of unrepresented and massive point of view on how to deal with the war with Islamic extremism. A sizeable majority of the American electorate simultaneously believes we must fight and win a war with Jihadism, and that the Iraq engagement is at best a distraction from and at worst a real handicap in said war. Lieberman and McCain notably believe the two issues are completely inseparable, a position that most Democrats and a growing number of Republicans have already abandoned, based not on ideology but on the terrible facts on the ground in Iraq and elsewhere. So if national security is the fulcrum of the political revolution that could create a McCain-Lieberman third party, it’s not clear either man is particularly well-equipped to lead the charge. Maybe some sort of odd coalition involving Wes Clark and Chuck Hagel could do that, but not John and Joe. And indeed, Joe Lieberman’s struggle to hang on to his Senate seat will heavily involve efforts to remind voters, just as he did during his near-miss primary fight, of his positions on all those issues that separate him from John McCain. Brooks, of course, hedges his bets and suggests that maybe elements of the alleged party of McCain and Lieberman could conquer one of the two major parties. And guess who might have a chance to do that? John McCain, of course, who is not going to join Lieberman in a third party effort, and who is in fact the early front-runner for the GOP nomination in 2008.Here Brooks follows his predictable pattern: distance yourself from both parties, gliding far above the messy partisan fray, but somehow wind up in a position of endorsing the GOP approach, whatever it is. The blunt reality is that we aren’t going to see a successful third-party movement in 2008 and if there is a third-party effort, it won’t be led by McCain or Lieberman. If, as Brooks professes to believe, the overriding imperative in American politics is to rid the system of polarization and the paralyzing influence of interest groups, the best and simplest way to make that happen is to get the current managers of Washington, who very deliberately created this polarized climate and have given interest groups far more privileged access than we’ve seen in Washington in a century, out of power. Then us Democrats can have our debates and our fights, and sort out those few issues on which our agendas for the country truly diverge.

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