It is always an abysmal failure.
While being a spectacular success.
It has never elected a President of the United States.
It has elected some of history’s most important Presidents of the United States.
How can this be?
The Third Party — being murmured recently to Sean Hannity by both former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin (“I don’t foresee that right now” she said, refusing to permanently rule out the idea) and Donald Trump (who dissed unnamed Republican candidates to Hannity as “stiffs”) is a powerful lure. For all the wrong reasons and all the right ones. (The Palin-Hannity interviews are here, here and here.)
Let’s start with a hard, cold historical fact.
No Third Party — by which me mean any party other than Republicans and Democrats — in all of American history has ever elected a president. The Republican Party was, at its founding in 1854, arguably a third party. But the power of the slavery issue was such that in short order it replaced the fledgling and philosophically shaky Whig Party, drawing into its center of political gravity millions of similarly inclined anti-slavery, pro-capitalist views. The Whigs vanished from the American scene altogether, as had the Federalist Party before it.
Both Federalists and Whigs were false starts at the very beginning of the American republic as the nation’s politics evolved into the American two-party system composed of Democrats and Republicans. Once that system had evolved, millions of followers across the country swelled the ranks of each. Party machinery was set up. Grassroots organization flexed its power, literally from bottom to top — from every house to the party club house to the state house to the White House partisans of the two were and are today everywhere.
In the 39 presidential elections that have been held since 1856 — the first time a Republican and Democrat faced off for the presidency with a contest between the GOP’s John Charles Fremont and the Democrats’ James Buchanan — only a Republican or Democrat has emerged victorious. No Whigs, no Federalists, no nominee of any other party has ever been elected president.
And there have been lots of other parties — or, as is said in the vernacular, “third parties.”
A partial list would include:
• The American Party (or “the Know-Nothings”)
• The Southern Democrat Party
• The Constitutional Union Party
• The Greenback Party
• The Prohibition Party
• The Union Labor Party
• The Populist Party
• The Socialist Party
• The Farmer-Labor Party
• The Progressive Party (or the “Bull Moose Party”)
• The Communist Party
• The Union Party
• The Constitution Party
• The Socialist-Labor Party
• The Socialist-Workers Party
• The American Independent Party
• The People’s Party
• The Libertarian Party
• The Independent Party
• The Reform Party
And there’s more on the list!
In each case these parties fielded presidential candidates to challenge the GOP and the Democrats. Whether those candidates were running on platforms that were seen in the day as Right, Left or Center they always — always — lost.
It’s not as if all these Third Party presidential candidates were slouches when it came to getting elected, either.
The list of losing third party presidential candidates since 1856 includes two former presidents — Millard Fillmore in 1856 and Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. It also counts former President Martin Van Buren, 1848’s Free Soil Party nominee — before the GOP was on the scene.
So the notion that either Palin or Trump might somehow win the White House as a Third Party nominee, after 156 years of Americans refusing flatly to elect anyone other than a Republican or Democrat to the presidential office, is little short of political nonsense.
Which is the paradox.
In the 39 presidential elections that have been held between that first 1856 face-off between Republican Fremont and Democrat Buchanan, a contest Democrat Buchanan won, Republicans have tellingly won the presidency 23 times to the Democrats’ 16. Not for nothing do conservatives believe America is a “center-right” nation.
During this period the Third Party in America — flying any number of political flags from left to right — has captured local elections, state legislative seats and here and there a state governor and United States Senator.
But history shows decidedly that the biggest success a Third Party can have is perhaps the most potent success to be had in American politics — changing or, as Ronald Reagan once said with regard to the 1970’s-era Republicans — revitalizing one of the two major parties. Which is to say, taking a set of principles, introducing them into the existing party structure of one or both parties — and creating a political powerhouse as a result.
This — this — is something the Third Party in America has been remarkably good at. And one can assume Palin, if not Trump, understands the difference. Cases in point?
• The “Third Party” Greenbacks and Populists of James B. Weaver: Overlapping slightly in time in the late 1800s, both parties were strong supporters of the popular election of U.S. Senators (as opposed to the original method of election by state legislatures), supported the creation of a graduated income tax and getting the United States off the gold standard. Each party found the same man to champion their cause as a losing presidential nominee — Iowa Congressman James B. Weaver, a disaffected Republican. He was nominated by the Greenbacks in 1880, the Populists in 1892. Over time these issues were absorbed by the Democrats — and Republicans as well. But the initial wave of change hit the Democrats with such force that it set the national stage for Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan, who uttered one of the most famous lines in political speechmaking when he concluded this barnburner to the 1896 Democratic National Convention this way:
“…we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
The “Cross of Gold” speech not only electrified the Democrats and won Bryan the Democratic presidential nomination in 1896 — with James B. Weaver’s enthusiastic support. The speech and the principles in it carried Bryan to second and third Democratic presidential nominations in 1900 and 1908 plus a tour as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State. The ideas Bryan promoted, absorbed from James B. Weaver and the Third Party enthusiasts who were the Greenbacks, the Populists and eventually the Progressives even began emerging from the Republican White House of Theodore Roosevelt. But without doubt these Third Party ideas, with Weaver in the lead as a two-time losing Third Party nominee, completely revitalized the Democrats into the 20th century “progressive” party of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt among others.
• The Progressive Party of Henry Wallace: Franklin Roosevelt’s one-term second vice-president, Wallace lost out initially in his battles with his intra-party rival and successor as FDR’s vice president, Harry Truman. Bolting the Democrats in 1948, Wallace “went Third Party” as the expression is today — losing to Truman and trailing Republican Thomas E. Dewey. But among the delegates to the Wallace Progressive Party Convention was a young South Dakota Democratic Party activist named George McGovern. In 1972, the now-U.S. Senator from South Dakota captured the Democrats’ presidential nomination with a philosophy on the Cold War and economics that appalled even many Democrats, who helped Richard Nixon to a landslide second-term victory. What McGovern had accomplished was using the Wallace progressive philosophy as a basis to capture the Democratic Party and install the Wallace-ite far-left in various controlling precincts of the Democrats. The Obama administration is filled with people born long after 1948 who are in fact the heirs and heiresses of a Third Party philosophy that has, from the Democrats point of view, “revitalized” the party and providing it with its “successes” on everything from nationalized health care to leaving Iraq.
• The Conservative Movement of the 1960s: “Let’s grow up, conservatives,” said Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater as he withdrew his name from contention against Vice President Richard Nixon at the 1960 Republican Convention. To Goldwater, the admonition to “grow up” decidedly did not mean leaving the GOP to start a Third Party. Instead, activists from the emerging conservative movement, casting an educated eye at the field tactics of the newly ascendant Kennedy organization, simply focused tightly on taking over the GOP itself. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, not only nominating Goldwater but effectively yanking control over the party itself from the hands of a slumbering GOP liberal establishment.
By 1980 they had nominated and elected Ronald Reagan — as a Republican.
SO WHAT’S THE LESSON on Third Parties?
They are not about to elect the next president. They have failed to do so repeatedly with names famous and obscure in the day. Whether it was Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, James Weaver, Eugene Debs, Silas Swallow (really!), Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Lafollette, Norman Thomas, Henry Wallace, Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, Benjamin Spock, Eugene McCarthy, John Anderson or Ross Perot or a small host of others, the Third Party presidential nominee is synonymous with “loser.” One finds it difficult to believe Governor Palin would seriously consider for a moment adding her name to this list, although perhaps it might be different for Trump if he believes he can’t win a Republican nomination and simply wants to join this particular club.
But can the ideas that Sarah Palin believes in revitalize the GOP? Of course.
Today’s “Tea Party” — not a “Third Party” yet in the sense of those listed above — is in fact much closer both tactically and ideologically to the original conservative movement. But without doubt it has already exhibited the clout of James Weaver’s Greenbacks and Populists along with Henry Wallace’s Progressives.
The smartest statement on all of this has come from Tea Party Express leader Amy Kremer, who understands the Third Party paradox exactly. The Tea Party, she says, has no intention whatsoever to field a Third Party candidate who would be, in the fashion of every single Third Party presidential nominee since the advent of the modern two-party system in 1856 — a certain loser.
Eye on the ball, Kremer says the objective is to defeat Barack Obama. And the way to do that is, precisely as Reagan said, revitalize the Republican Party. To follow the path of the original conservative movement of the 1960s and take over the party organization while backing the GOP nominee if not seriously participating in the choosing of that nominee. Along with pumping out a steady stream of intellectually demanding conservative ideas based on conservative principle — just as James Weaver and Henry Wallace did from the Left.
WHAT DOES ALL of this mean for Governor Palin?
The notion she cannot win the presidency as a Republican is laughable. The hard historical fact, as even former Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean has correctly noted, is that to be the nominee of one or the other two major political parties is to be in a considerable position to win the presidency itself. If Palin defeats the GOP field and becomes the nominee she will become overnight one of the two most formidable figures in American politics — President Obama being the other. This “Palin can’t win” business is Inside the Beltway stuff el supremo. This was said of one-term ex-congressman Lincoln back in 1860 before there was a Beltway to be Inside of (the Romney of the day was New York U.S. Senator William Seward, an ex-governor of New York and a stalwart in the anti-slavery cause. Unbelieving for a considerable period that he could have lost to Lincoln, he accepted the offer to be Secretary of State, promptly assuming he, Seward would be the real president. He was wrong.)
What’s being said now of Palin was said of Ronald Reagan by the Gerald Ford wing of the GOP in both 1976 and 1980 — the Carter White House in the day (1980) licking its chops for a chance to run against the man they saw as a Palinesque lightweight far right-wing extremist. Alas for Carter… this turned out not to be true. For that matter, not taking candidate X seriously is not limited to Republican insiders. Jimmy Carter himself wasn’t taken seriously by Democrats when he started his first presidential campaign in 1975, his home town Atlanta paper derisively asking, “Jimmy Who is Running for What?“
The notion that all this attention and scorn that is poured like vats of political acid over Governor Palin because she is someone seen by liberals and some establishment Republicans as not a serious threat is telling in itself.
Of course Sarah Palin is a serious threat — and not just to other prospective candidates. She is perhaps an even more serious threat to the Washington GOP insiders whose very livelihood depends on their cozy don’t-rock-the-boat relationship with a candidate and that candidate’s entourage.
The question is: will she stop musing to Sean Hannity and who knows who else about whether she is not thinking “right now” of doing something that will certify her as a permanent political loser.
Or, paradoxically, make her one of the more influential American politicians since, well, James B. Weaver?