POLITICS MARCH 27, 2000
You can see why a third-party candidacy might look awfully good to John McCain right about now. In the last few months he has made himself into just about the most popular politician in the country. Yet he was denied his party's nomination in a process that--aside from its notable ugliness-- appeared to demonstrate that any candidate moderate enough to appeal to a cross-partisan majority is ideologically unacceptable to the GOP's establishment and base voters. McCain's defeat would seem to confirm, in other words, that the senator's personal interests and the interests of political reform lie in direct opposition to the two-party system.
It is a tempting interpretation, and it is beginning to be heard from both McCain's allies and the remnants of the Reform Party. But the third-party impulse is a political and historical delusion. The best way for McCain to advance the cause he has championed is from within the Republican Party.
McCain's most significant reform of the American political system is not his campaign finance proposal--which, as even he acknowledges, would only ameliorate the corrupting power of money for as long as it took for the inevitable loopholes to be discovered. It is, rather, his crusade to reform the GOP. McCain has begun a long-overdue debate about what it means to be a conservative in the postReagan era. It may be too much to expect that the Republican Party will ever become the voice of the economically and socially powerless. But, given McCain's success, it is no longer impossible to imagine the party reconstituting itself around the principles of moralism (defined patriotically, not religiously) and reform. There is such a thing as enlightened corporate stewardship. It is wholly distinct from the robber- baron capitalism peddled by the likes of Bill Archer and Tom DeLay, and a growing minority of Republican voters know that.
McCain may not win this debate if he stays, but he cannot win it if he leaves. His ideological foes say his ideas are dangerous because they are foreign; to be a true conservative and a true Republican, as George W. Bush defined it during the primaries, is to subscribe to conservatism and Republicanism as they exist today. If McCain leaves the party, he proves Bush right. There is also a nascent coterie of McCain Republicans who have begun to rethink the meaning of conservatism. A McCain defection would subvert them, too.
McCain would also find himself up against the brute logic of the two-party system. Since American democracy does not allow for proportional representation, a vote for a third-party candidate is almost always wasted. It is possible, of course, for a third party to supplant an existing one. But the Reform Party, in its pitiable state, faced with a contented electorate and an absence of galvanizing crises, has no chance of doing away with the GOP. What's more, the corrupt and authoritarian party of Ross Perot has long since squandered its claim to being a legitimate vehicle for political reform.
Proponents of third parties, of course, claim that the two-party system inevitably produces the apathy and corruption against which McCain crusades. But the United States has always had a two-party system, and it has not always had an apathetic electorate. Since the Civil War, moreover, all of America's great political movements--from Progressivism to the New Right-- have arisen within the two major parties. McCain's crusade to redefine the GOP is still in an embryonic stage. It is far too early to call it a lost cause.
Indeed, McCain's prospects within the GOP are bright. By strategically withholding his endorsement, he can force Bush to adopt some of his ideas. (Bush has already co-opted his slogans.) McCain's proven popularity will enhance his stature and influence within the Senate. What pork-barreling senator will not now fear a tongue-lashing from the man thought to embody the great political center?
Most importantly, McCain stands a real chance of capturing the Republican nomination in four years. It is true that the GOP elite rejected his apostasy this year. But a party's willingness to tolerate heresy is a direct function of the amount of time it has spent out of power. The Republican exile from the White House has lasted only two terms. Under comparable circumstances-- eight years into the last GOP presidential dynasty--the Democrats nominated the technocratic but essentially liberal Michael Dukakis. Only four years later were they willing to nominate a New Democrat who truly jettisoned the party's political baggage. If Bush loses--particularly if he loses because he is portrayed as an out-of-step right-winger--Republicans will be ravenous for victory, and in McCain they will have their best and perhaps only chance to win. It's a chance worth waiting for.
By The Editors