Here’s to third parties.
In the past week, we’ve had two major losses and an important change in partisan affiliation. H. Ross Perot and Lee Iacoccoa each passed away. Meanwhile, U.S. House Rep. Justin Amash has left the Republican party.
Some of this hits home personally. My first memory of political engagement surrounded Perot. My father was a big booster, and — for whatever reason — I distinctly recall attending some sort of organizational meeting for Perot’s presidential campaign. At the time, I was seven or eight years old.
That experience continued into elementary school generally, and third grade specifically. When our school held our mock election, I was one of three students in the third grade who cast our mock ballot for Perot. It was an early lesson in minority voting vis-a-vis the majority.
That said, Perot acted as a spoiler for then-President George H.W. Bush. The latter’s promise — reading his lips — of no new taxes was a major gaffe, presenting an avenue of attack for his opponents. Perot capitalized on this error, beating Bush in Maine despite the family’s historic homestead in Kennebunkport.
Perot exposed a fault line in the electoral camps between the two dominant parties: Republicans and Democrats.
The same analysis applies to Iacocca. He was responsible for the development of the iconic Ford Mustang and, following his departure from the Blue Oval, led the creation of “mini vans” in the form of the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager. In 1988, he was heavily courted to run for president. He ultimately declined, although polls showed he stood a credible chance at winning.
Which brings us back to Amash. He has been a longtime critic of President Donald Trump, decrying the latter’s deficit spending, tariffs, and apparent development of a case for implementation of military force against perceived enemies. This has led to his name being set forth as a potential 2020 presidential candidate. To date, the movement has gone nowhere.
Nevertheless, Amash, Iacocca, and Perot all highlight the appeal of third parties within the modern American political system. Most Americans aren’t stuck in rigid ideological blocs labeled “Republican” and “Democrat.” Rather, the culture of our nation leads us to look for pragmatic problem solvers.
That explains the appeal of those who argue government should be run like a business. The analogy isn’t perfect; the public sector isn’t expected to turn a profit, and the inherent tension created by the separation of powers slows things down. However, the private sector generally confronts a series of problems and tries to fashion the best solution they can based on the information and resources they have available.
So, as we approach 2020’s presidential election, the question arises: which candidate takes up the mantle of Perot? Is it Amash? Or President Trump? Or do Democrats like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg try to recapture the “third way” espoused by President Bill Clinton? Or an outsider businessman like former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz?
This is why third parties can serve an important role in our political system. Perot may have not have been elected president, but most credible analysis indicates his candidacy prevented George H. W. Bush from earning a second term.
The “butterfly effect” of Perot’s candidacy is significant. Would Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton reach the national stage without him? Would Bush’s son have sought the presidency without his father’s defeat? These are unanswerable questions.
Yet they all point back to a single development. While the American political system seems intractably frozen between “red” and “blue” blocs, third party candidates present an opportunity to thaw the detente.
Because, at the end of the day, Americans are fairly simple. We want a fair political process, with reasonable but predictable rules of law, helping those truly in need while denying assistance to individuals unwilling to help themselves. We want leaders who are pragmatic and willing to make things better, even if they cannot be perfect.
2020 will be interesting to watch. Trump may have a libertarian challenger in Amash. The Democratic candidate, if too far left, may be challenged by Schultz. Both candidates could play the Perot role and undermine support for the major party nominees.
So here’s to third-party candidates. Let’s hope their efforts make our nation better.