Is America Ready for a New Third Party? The Passion of the Rand Paulistas (Part 4 of 5)

In the first installment of this series, we noted the considerable public opposition to big government, as well as a palpable hostility to the status quo, suggesting the possibility of new political ferment--inside of, or outside of, the two party system. In part two, we looked at the history of third-party movements in the US, noting that they have come into existence to provide a voice to the voiceless, all across the political spectrum. 

And in part three, we examined the prospects for a third-party movement based in the frustrated voices of the contemporary middle--and saw that there’s not much chance of these middle-of-the-roaders pulling a true third party into existence.  

Now, in part four, we consider the prospects of a third-party movement from a more zealous group.  And that’s from the right, or perhaps more precisely, from the Tea-Party-ish libertarian right.  Is such a prospect for real?  

One who says “yes” is National Journal reporter Ron Fournier. On February 14, Fournier tossed this not-so-Valentine into Republican precincts, predicting a third-party rumble on the right:

Inside the cozy enclaves of GOP bonhomie—hunkered at the tables of see-and-be-seen Washington restaurants—Republican leaders are sourly predicting a party-busting independent presidential bid by a tea-party challenger, like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., in 2016.

To them, the GOP apocalypse looms larger than most realize. Dueling State of the Union rebuttals and Karl Rove’s assault on right-wing candidates are mere symptoms of an existential crisis that is giving the sturdiest Republicans heartburn.

So do Republican regulars have good cause for their heartburn? Or, to put it another way, should hardcore libertarians and constitutional conservatives feel joy in their hearts?  

We might note immediately that there’s a bit of a distinction between the Tea Party, and what remains of it, and Rand Paul.  

The tea party had a great run in 2010, but since then, its public image has fractured, along with the careers of, for example, former Reps. Allen West and Joe Walsh, and non-Sens. Todd Akin and Richard Murdock--all losers in the 2012 elections.   

Today, according to pollster Scott Rasmussen, the number of Americans who associate themselves with the Tea Party has fallen by two-thirds, while its favorability/unfavorability rating is full-fathom underwater.    

Yet Tea-Party-ish sentiments still loom large in the GOP.  Indeed, a vaguely Tea-Party-ish suspicion of governmental intrusion seems to have been growing stronger nationwide. In 2011, Nate Silver, the remorselessly accurate soothsayer, had this to say about the national mood:  

There have been visible shifts in public opinion on a number of issues, ranging from increasing tolerance for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization on the one hand, to the skepticism over stimulus packages and the health-care overhaul on the other hand, that can be interpreted as a move toward more libertarian views.

Still, Silver also included this demurral: “Whether people are as libertarian-minded in practice as they might believe themselves to be when they answer survey questions is another matter.” 

As Shakespeare’s Hamlet would say if he were active in politics, “Ay, there’s the rub.” Yes, since 2011, the causes of gay marriage and legal marijuana have made great strides, but, on the other hand, the government is spending more, not less. 

Thus the complexity: People don’t like being told what to do, but they also don’t mind being the beneficiary of government help.  And this is a classic historical phenomenon, because while Americans are instinctively suspicious of “Big Government”--a legacy of our Revolutionary and Jeffersonian heritage--they are also instinctively supportive of getting their fair share, and, crucially, what they see as a fair share for others.

A case in point is social spending, especially in hard times. In August 1935, in the middle of the Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Social Security Act, guaranteeing most American workers an old-age pension. Social Security was and is the centerpiece of the New Deal.  Yet interestingly, even as FDR was signing the legislation, pollster George Gallup asked this question: “Do you think expenditures by the government for relief and recovery are too little, too great, or just about right?" The public’s answer came back, “too little,” nine percent, “about right,” 31 percent; “too great,” 60 percent.  

So that was a thumbs down for welfare and also for Big Government.  But was it also a thumbs down for the new Social Security law?  Not at all. That same year, Gallup also asked, “Are you in favor of government old-age pensions for the needy?  And the answer was “yes,” 89 percent; “no,” 11 percent.  And, of course, the following year, 1936, FDR was re-elected with almost 61 percent of the popular vote, carrying 46 of 48 states.  Once again: Did people think that the government was too big? Yes. But did they also think that they themselves--and people like them--needed help?  The answer was “yes” to that, too.   

The same divided thinking on government spending--critics might prefer to call it schizophrenia--applies today.  As we saw in part one, a recent Pew poll found that a majority of Americans see the government as a threat to their personal rights and freedoms, and nearly three-fourths say that they rarely or never trust the federal government.  

It’s that spirit, of course, that helped the Republicans win a big victory in 2010. 

Yet while people dislike the federal government as a whole, some specific federal programs they like a lot.  For example, the same Pew Center found that opposition to voucherizing Medicare actually rose from 2011 to 2012.  

So what happened to Tea Party-ism when it met with Medicare? First, GOP Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin put the idea of Medicare vouchers--what he called “premium support”--into national play. Second, the Democrats hammered the idea, by any name, deep into the dirt. In fact, by an 18-point margin, Americans now think that keeping Medicare and Social Security benefits the same is more important that reducing the budget deficit. 

It’s that spirit of course, that helped the Democrats win a big victory in 2012.    

Indeed, all through the last three-and-a-half years, Virgil has attended various Tea Party rallies and noted a disconnect between the speakers at such rallies, on the one hand, and their  audiences, on the other. The speakers were, without fail, highly ideological, thoroughly steeped in their interpretation of the Constitution-writing Founders of America, as well as the novel-writing Ayn Rand of Russia and the tome-writing economists of Austria. Yet their audiences, meanwhile, were not so much ideological as angry about at Washington in general.  That is, the audiences were sincere, but they disliked Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi more than the basic idea of a national government.  In fact, Tea Party events were thick with retirees, most of them at least partially dependent on Social Security and Medicare.  

In 2009-10, this disconnect, between speakers and cheerers, didn’t matter much, because all those at Tea Party rallies in those years were united in the goal of beating the Democrats in November 2010. Yet that disconnect became important in 2011-12, when many among the tea party faithful realized that they liked retirement programs pretty much they way they were.    

In other words, people may think of themselves as libertarian on many issues, but they don’t always mean it--and they don’t vote that way.  

We can know this for sure by examining the formal libertarian vote. Since 1972, the Libertarian Party (LP) has been running a presidential candidate; these candidates are invariably articulate and reasonably well funded, as third party candidates go--and they have included two Members of Congress, Ron Paul in 1988 and Bob Barr in 2008. Yet even so, the LP candidate has never received more than 1.06 percent of the vote--and that was way back in 1980.   

In 2012, we might note, LP candidate Gary Johnson--who back in the 90s had been elected twice as governor of New Mexico as a Republican--received .99 percent of the vote.  So why did Johnson prove so weak on the national stage, garnering such a small LP vote? What happens to all that small “l” libertarian sentiment when it meets the big “L” Libertarian Party? It seems that by the time that the LP candidate gets through answering questions about all the elements of, for example, the LP Platform--from total and complete drug legalization to isolationism to “free market banking"--not much public support remains.   

In addition, there’s the well-grounded feeling on the right that LP candidacies, at all levels, mostly siphon away votes from Republican candidates. According to one estimate, LP candidates cost Republicans their victory in nine elections, just in 2012.  Such outcomes might be just fine to some, but many more think that it’s shame to vote LP and maybe hand the victory to the Democrat.   

Ah, some will say, what about a libertarian-leaning Republican, such as say, Sen. Rand Paul?   Couldn’t he do better? And the answer is that he could--as a Republican.   

In 2010, most experts thought that Paul, who had never been elected to anything, would lose the GOP primary to the hand-picked party insider. Yet Paul won, because he mobilized libertarian and Tea Party support within the Republican Party. And many of the same experts predicted that Paul, the political nouveau, would surely stumble in the general election. But he won in November as well, because, once again, he had all the factions of the right united.  

So could Paul buck the system again in a 2016 presidential bid? In particular, could he run as a “party-busting independent,” as reporter Fournier hinted?  It doesn’t seem likely. Paul makes no bones about his desire to move to the White House, but he doesn’t seem eager to repeat the electoral fate of his father, who won less half a percent of the vote on the LP line back in 1988; the younger Paul seems to have cast his lot with the GOP. As Rand Paul said on the February 17 edition of “Fox News Sunday,” “I would absolutely not run unless it were to win.”  So that seems to rule out a symbolic protest run. Indeed, he added, “I think the country is really ready for the narrative coming--the Libertarian Republican narrative.”  

Paul’s words seem to suggest that he is planning to run for president--if, in fact, he runs--as a Republican.  Indeed, the Kentuckian has been sounding less libertarian and more conservative lately. For example, he still has major foreign-policy differences with Republican neoconservatives, but he has joined with them on the filibuster against the nomination of Chuck Hagel. Paul will never be anyone’s idea of a good neocon, but he also doesn’t seem to want to be an outright enemy. And that suggests that the libertarians and neoconservatives might yet find a way to fuse together.   

As we have seen, third parties form when a voiceless group wants a voice. And they fizzle when one of the two parties starts speaking with that previously unacknowledged voice. Today, as we have seen, the Tea Party, as well as the libertarians, seem to have been mostly absorbed by the Republican Party, and that will likely continue for as long as Rand Paul is a Republican Senator. Indeed, Paul is doing his best to nominate and elect like-minded candidates as Republicans--and only as Republicans. The Tea Party never has gone rogue, and now it likely never will.  

It’s possible that some self-proclaimed Tea Partier will run as a third-partier in 2016, as, maybe, the candidate of the Constitution Party, which received a de minimis .09 percent of the presidential vote in 2012. A really determined Tea Partier could do better than that in ’16, but the purpose would be to make some sort of statement, not to win.  And the effect, if it were noticeable, would be to help the Democrats. That’s “party-busting,” indeed, although not much more than that.  

The same holds true for the Libertarian Party. The LP will run someone in ’16, because it always does.  Yet that candidate will be hard-pressed to break that one-percent ceiling, in part because history, and common sense, tells us that most LP votes are carved out of the hide of Republicans.  

Thus we can conclude, at least for now, that there’s not much room on the right for a third party. As long as Rand Paul, and his passionate supporters, stay within the GOP, all will be quiet on the rightward front. 

So that leaves one other group of disaffected voters, which we will explore in the fifth and final installment.

Next: The Silent Majority


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