Third Parties Don’t Work

Over at the Washington Post, Matt Miller has been crusading for a third party candidate. Ezra Klein and Miller seem to agree on policy more or less down the line, and they debated; Klein destroyed Miller. Key bit:

MATT: But let me ask you this. Just on that issue [the filibuster], which I admire your focus on, do you think that the likelihood of it happening would not be different if it were at the center of a third-party campaign explaining to people that part of why nothing gets done or that we can’t do things that are equal to our challenges is because of X, Y and Z in the rules, and this is one of them? If a candidate emerged and they were talking about this as one of the centerpieces of what had to change for us to be able to address our problems, I would think that that would increase the probability of it changing, if they won on it. Even if they didn’t win, they would change the nature of the entire conversation.

EZRA: No. You can run out the theory all sorts of ways, but certainly I don’t think Ralph Nader running on campaign finance reform or changing the amount of greed in politics changes it very much. I think it ended up going in the opposite direction. I think third-party candidacies in some ways can be helpful, but can be very, very, very unpredictable, obviously. And I think the actual answer is that I think it would affect the likelihood of this almost zero. I mean, it would be interesting if you had somebody relevant running a third-party campaign based on an attack on the filibuster. I think that would be pretty interesting.

That’s exactly right.

Miller rests a lot of his argument on the Ross Perot campaign of 1992, and that it supposedly was responsible for deficit reduction. Miller was in the Clinton White House, and it’s hard to argue against the subjective feelings of participants; I’m sure that to him, and perhaps to many of the Clinton crew, it felt as if Perot forced the issue. The problem is that it’s real hard to find supporting evidence. After all, Reagan-era budget politics was dominated by deficit politics (thus Gramm-Rudman, among other things), followed by a major and successful deficit reduction package during the Bush presidency — a package Perot opposed, just as he opposed the Clinton deficit reduction package in 1993. And histories of the Clinton administration stress the economic logic for deficit reduction (under 1993 circumstances, it would keep interest rates down and therefore spur growth), which presumably would have pushed the economic team in that direction regardless of Perot.

Perot did talk a lot about the deficit, but in my view his contributions to that discussion were almost always counterproductive, and at any rate I’m confident that had Perot never run for president not much would have changed about the Clinton administration’s approach on that issue. My general feeling is that while it’s possible for third parties to put items on the national agenda that neither party will discuss, it’s a highly inefficient way of doing so at best. And as for actually passing things, it’s almost never a useful strategy.

[Cross-posted atA plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.