A third party in '96?


Ithaca, N.Y. -- THE RETIREMENT of Sen. Bill Bradley has revived talk of third parties.

It's still subversive talk in a land whose political religion is the two-party system.

What we need is an evaluation that is honest and sober but does not pour cold water on the dying coals of a third party, which is the only hope for genuine political reform in America.

First, what's with Mr. Bradley?

Mr. Bradley hit a brick wall. He faced serious opposition in a state gone Republican, and there just wasn't enough support and money coming in to overcome the negative odds.

It follows that there was also not enough support and money for an insurgency against Bill Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1996.

Thus, he was doomed to dive into the flow of politicians swimming around in search of a new landing. They are all part of a historic realignment in national politics.

These shifts are infrequent enough in American history. But this one is especially unusual because it is an ideological realignment without an electoral realignment.

Ordinarily, it happens between the two major parties, but that process has generated third-party efforts in the past, some more successful than others.

The most important realignments occurred in 1856, 1896 and 1932, which were also periods of significant third-party ferment.

Today, conditions for a third party have rarely been more favorable, with malaise in both major parties, with deep and intense mobilization of left against right within and between both parties and a highly dyspeptic electorate. Why, then, won't it happen?

First, we have to define what a third party is. A third party is not an independent candidacy for president.

Ross Perot was not a third party in 1992, nor did he want to make one, lead one or be part of one.

Little ideological and single-issue groupings that use the election as a medium for their message are not third parties, either.

Throwing them and the independent candidacies into the category of third parties only messes up the analysis and confuses people who are looking for a third party to belong to. A genuine third party is just like the two major parties, whose persistence would give us what we have never had -- a three-party system.

Even the people who could make a genuine third party don't seem to know what one is.

Mr. Perot may have been a great CEO in a private corporation, and he sure was a lucky one, which is more than the half the battle. But in politics, he is nothing more than an opera buffa dictator.

The more he talked about how he belonged to his people, the more top-down he was in organization. Any show of spontaneity by Mr. Perot enthusiasts at the grass roots was almost immediately quashed, bottled and suppressed by a visiting regional organizer, directly from Dallas.

Mr. Perot would need a translator to explain what Tip O'Neill meant by "all politics is local." For Mr. Perot all politics is a local TV station.

But even if he knew from local, he would never have tolerated the practice of nominating Perot candidates to local offices, cross-endorsing selected candidates from other parties and having genuine precinct organizations, with more or less loyalty to the center.

If not Mr. Perot, what about Colin Powell as a third-party possibility?

Since neither major party has offered him the presidential nomination, he would have to have all the more charisma and energy to mount even an independent candidacy, not to speak of a genuine third party.

Consequently, by process of elimination, it is increasingly clear that Mr. Powell's least expensive and most highly probable route to the White House would be to accept the vice presidential nomination from whichever Republican wins the presidential nomination.

Jesse Jackson is the only guy in the swim who seems to understand what a third party would be, as proved by the way he organized the Rainbow Coalition.

But Mr. Jackson is a captive of the Democratic Party, and Rainbow is gone.

Now to Mr. Bradley. We tend to forget that he waltzed directly into the elite of American politics; the Senate was his first job after basketball. And although he worked hard as a senator, he didn't have to work very hard in electoral politics until he was almost beaten in New Jersey six years ago.

In his retirement speech, Mr. Bradley spoke longingly about getting back to people where they live their lives.

Could he mean shopping malls? He is like former Senators Warren Rudman and Paul Tsongas, who formed the bipartisan Concord Coalition in 1992 to restore America's fiscal conscience.

And, like them, he is also probably too wedded to the two-party system to go for an independent candidacy, much less a genuine third party.

But Mr. Bradley would have to know a few more things about politics if he were to screw up his courage and break with the two-party system. Here's a clue: it means getting like-minded candidates to run with you for all the offices on the ballot.

It means raising millions of dollars but spending substantial proportions of it on lawsuits to get on ballots, and in the process to attack the constitutionality of the laws that were intended to protect the two-party system.

Even the infamous winner-take-all electoral system, given the amount of gerrymander abuse, is of doubtful constitutional validity. As is true of all important reforms, you have to have a constitutional revolution before you can have a practical revolution.

Mr. Bradley, the new guy on the scene, is famously hard to predict. But predictions are hard to resist: Mr. Bradley will end up in Concord, that happy hunting ground of statesmen -- that is, dead politicians. Concord would be a great name for a new political party.

But what it amounts to in truth is more effort to keep a real third party from happening.

Theodore J. Lowi, a professor of government at Cornell University, is the author, most recently, of "The End of the Republican Era."

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