During an interview on "On Point" last night about his Atlantic Monthly article predicting a future economic crisis, James Fallows was the latest commentator to endorse the third party meme that's rocketing around the press (Real Audio - go to 38:00 in the clip):
I feel something different from what I've ever felt before in my depressingly long political life, which is I can imagine [in] another election or two a third party making it if people just feel the two established parties -- [which have] been around since before the Civil War -- that neither of them can deal with the actual issues that face the country. So this article proposes that in the third election from now the third party will win and I actually could imagine that happening.
And here's Marshall Wittman today on TPM Cafe:
Conditions are developing for a possible third party alternative in '08.
As the new Washington Post survey shows, independents are particularly estranged from the Bushies. The overall electorate is annoyed by both parties and the Washington politicians. The deficit is growing and the economy is anemic. The popularity of the Iraq war is plummeting and no end is in sight.
These are combustible conditions that could very well produce a third force in American politics. It is striking how similar the current situation is to that in 1992 when Perot emerged. Actually it is far worse - then, we were in the aftermath of a successful war although the economy was in a worse state.
The question is whether the Democratic party can fill this political vacuum - as Clinton did in '92 It will take more than Bush bashing to appeal to the disaffected. That is why a reform agenda that defies the political establishment in Washington is so essential.
These are more cautious formulations than the rash speculation about 2008 that we've seen from Ron Brownstein, Joe Trippi, Mickey Kaus and others, and it certainly could happen. Still, I think Fallows and Wittman overstates the possibility of a successful third party. The fundamental insight of the political science literature on parties is that they are the vehicles of highly strategic politicians who react quickly to any threat to their hold on power.
To pick up on Wittman's example, many people thought Ross Perot was a serious presidential candidate who would form a viable third party that could knock off one of the two established parties. But the parties quickly moved to defuse his appeal by addressing the deficit and Perot fizzled, failing to win a single electoral vote or establish his Reform Party as any kind of a credible alternative. Similarly, in 2004, John Kerry moved to try to defuse the appeal of Ralph Nader, who stole votes from Al Gore, and as a result Nader drew many fewer votes than he did in 2000. (If you go back further in history, there are many more examples like this.)
In short, there's a reason the two parties have stuck around since the Civil War; they've adapted repeatedly to changing political circumstances, using their leverage as established parties to squash potential competitors and steal their issues. We shouldn't underestimate how quickly they can turn on a dime and defuse an emerging threat. In all likelihood, the "political vacuum" will be filled.