THAT WASHINGTON sage, Conventional Wisdom, has been telling us for months that a third party candidate has to run for Bill Clinton to have any shot at re-election. What no one expected, however, was that the president himself might prove to be that independent candidate. Traditional Democrats complain that, in putting forth his own plan to balance the budget, President Clinton seems to be positioning himself to run against both parties in Congress. If that isn't his intention, it should be, and if he doesn't do it, or maybe even if he does, someone else is likely to.
The evidence keeps mounting that the electorate's anger with Washington and politicians extends to political parties. The drift away from parties, the non-partisan shift of recent years, has become antipartisanship. In a bipartisan poll looking at the relative strength of the two parties, one in four voters said they didn't trust either the Democrats or the Republicans to deal with the nation's problems. In another recent survey, 57 percent responded they would like an alternative to the two-party choice. And as the "motor voter" law (which requires states to offer voter registration at motor vehicle offices) goes into effect, many states report large percentages choosing to register as independents.
These independents are up for grabs. In a Times-Mirror poll released last week, Mr. Clinton's job approval rating had risen 12 points with independents since last December, happiness with Republican control of Congress had dropped 12 points, so that the two were virtually tied. Even more important, the president had gained 13 points among Ross Perot voters, the Republicans dropped 13 points. But the Republicans were still beating President Clinton by an almost 2-to-1 margin.
That's one of the reasons the president made his speech promising to tackle the deficit, and why he reached out his hand to Newt Gingrich on a bipartisan commission on campaign finance and lobbying reform. Those are issues the Perot people care about. But the president's continued low ratings with those voters, and the failure of any of the current crop of Republican candidates to set them on fire, keeps the conversation going about a possible independent candidate getting into the race. Keeping in mind that Ross Perot was leading both parties' candidates in the polls when he dropped out of the race in 1992, the search is on for a somewhat saner contender for 1996.
Most of the talk centers around Gen. Colin Powell, and a couple of "draft Powell" efforts are already organized. Mr. Powell has the advantage of already being known, and favorably known, to most of the American public. A few business people are talking about Malcolm S. (Steve) Forbes Jr. Mr. Forbes has the advantage of a personal fortune he could plow into his effort. And Lowell Weicker, former Connecticut governor and senator, is talking about himself. Mr. Weicker has the advantage of having run and won as an independent in his own state. Since none of these candidates would represent a third party (Jesse Jackson with his already established Rainbow Coalition has a better chance of doing that), there would not be slates of candidates under their names on most state ballots. They would simply serve as alternative choices, give a name to "none of the above." The unanswerable question is whether voters would opt to positively agree with one of them.
But it's tough even to get to the point where that question can be asked. Genuine third parties usually have some sort of grass-roots organization working against state bureaucracies to get their candidates on the ballot. That's an infuriating task that state laws have made more, not less, difficult in recent months. Then there's the problem of money. Lowell Weicker fumes that "$40 million is automatically wired into the accounts of Democrats and Republicans" because of the campaign finance laws. Still, he's convinced that a centrist candidate will get into the 1996 race (and leaves the strong impression that he will be that candidate). And, Mr. Weicker insists, if elected, that candidate will be able to govern. He knows, he says, because he's done it.
Without bothering to pay lip service to modesty, Mr. Weicker takes credit for dealing with the tough issues of taxes, gun control and racial equity in education. Had he still been a Republican, he argues, the pressure would have been enormous not to saddle the party with those issues. He claims that he was able to appoint "visionaries" from both parties because he didn't have to get the approval of town committees for his choices. Candidate Bill Clinton promised that kind of bipartisanship in government when he ran as a New Democrat in 1992. But President Clinton governed as an Old Democrat. Now he seems to be bringing out the old song sheets, humming the tunes which worked for him before. And when Democrats accuse him of throwing them overboard, running as an independent candidate, that must be music to his ears. As the president moves to the middle, he will find millions of voters waiting for him there but he might also find another candidate already occupying the space.
Cokie Roberts is an ABC News commentator. Steven V. Roberts is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report.