Third Party Peril
The history books show that George W. Bush's father lost the 1992 presidential election to Bill Clinton by 370 Electoral College votes to 168. As usual in our system, the popular vote was nothing like as decisive as the Electoral College numbers suggest. It actually went as follows: Bush 38%, Clinton 43%, Perot 19%. Did Perot cost Bush that election? Nobody really knows. The number-crunchers are still squabbling, and you can find arguments pro and con. The following statement, though, is incontrovertible: A strong third-party candidate can change the result of a presidential election, causing the defeat of a candidate — even of a sitting president — who would otherwise have won. If this did not happen in 1992 or 1968 (when George Wallace was the spoiler), it surely happened in 1912, when Teddy Roosevelt split the Republican vote, bringing down sitting Republican president William Howard Taft and giving the presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Could such a thing be on the cards for the 2004 election? Nobody's been talking about it … but then, there are a great many things in modern American life that no-one talks about. The main topic of what follows, for example.
I'd like to suggest that a third-party challenge is a strong possibility; and that, if launched in the way I am about to suggest, and absent some drastic changes in the current administration's policies, might very well become a decisive factor in causing George W. Bush to be the second single-term president of his line (thus nicely reprising the Presidents Adams, father and son, single-termers both).
The following arguments are independent of any dramatic developments at home or abroad over the next 13 months; I am going to assume that at election time 2004, things are pretty much as they are now. Given the state of the world, and of the U.S. economy, this is not actually likely to be the case; but I think my argument offers a strong cautionary tale none the less, one that administration planners would do well to heed.
Let us begin by looking at those previous instances of spoiling, or possibly-spoiling, third party candidacies. In each case an essential component of the candidate's success in taking votes away from the major parties was a strong voice on some clear issue of concern to some large number of voters nationwide. Teddy Roosevelt spoke for the Progressive movement, which many voters felt (somewhat unfairly, as I read the record) had lost momentum under President Taft. George Wallace was a focus for the resentments stirred up by the Civil Rights movement of the mid-1960s. Ross Perot got his energy from the collapse of American manufacturing, and the feeling that foreign trade was being conducted in a way that was unfair to U.S. workers.
Is there some such issue today, some issue that would energize ten or twenty million voters nationwide to go out and vote for a candidate not of their party? You bet, and you know what that issue is.
So here is the scenario. George W. Bush is heading into the spring primaries with a lackluster economy, GIs getting killed in Iraq and Afghanistan (remember Afghanistan?) at a low but steady rate, and — let's be frank here — the worst policy-presentation skills since Herbert Hoover. The Democrats have a raft of candidates, none of whom excites terrific enthusiasm, but two or three of whom are showing skill at exploiting current discontents.
Along comes Candidate X. He is probably self-financing; a patriot with a ton of money, some experience of public life, and a deep concern with the key issue. (My acquaintance with the stinking rich is miserably slight, but I can, without breaking a sweat, think of three names that might fit here.) He may have got himself nominated as head of Perot's old Reform Party, or he may have formed a party all of his own. Here is what he says.
My fellow Americans, our federal government is failing us in one of its most basic, most elementary duties: It is not protecting our nation's borders and points of entry, and it is not exercising proper supervision over foreign visitors. Every week, thousands of foreigners enter our country illegally, or stay here illegally when they ought to leave. Most of these people simply seek to better their lives, to escape from the poverty or oppression of their homelands, to build prosperity for themselves and their families in a free country. A small minority are common criminals, who believe they can ply their lawless trade better in a country which severely restrains the activities of its police, and whose courts give the benefit of every possible doubt to the accused. A much smaller minority are terrorists, who come here with the intent to kill as many of us as they can, by the most horrifying means they can think of, in order to change the direction of our national policies, or even with the hope of destroying our nation altogether. All, however, are breaking our laws, as are those American firms that employ them.
Why are these laws not enforced by our federal executive? Why, if the laws themseves are unsatisfactory, are they not changed by our federal legislature? Why are these laws repeatedly interpreted by our federal judiciary to give maximum scope to the continuation of this mass illegality? If, as the federal judiciary apparently intends, a person who enters the United States unlawfully, or unlawfully overstays his agreed term of residence here, is to be granted something close to full citizenship rights, without significant penalty, why do we have complex and expensive procedures for legal immigration? And what do we say to immigrants who follow our laws and wait patiently for their citizenship, when those who scoff at the laws and jump the lines are waved through?
We can discuss the answers to those questions in another place — I shall be glad to offer my own answers upon interview. I only want to stress to you here the plain fact that our laws are not being enforced, that our federal government is derelict in the performance of its most basic duty towards its masters — we, the people. Also to draw your attention to the consequences of that dereliction, namely, that the character of our country is being changed.
Change is, of course, nothing to fear for a dynamic and forward-looking nation like ours. Americans have always welcomed change. The great wave of lawful immigration into this country through the late 19th and early 20th century changed and enriched us immeasurably — though we should recall that in order to give those newcomers time to properly assimilate, we severely curtailed legal immigration for 40 years, from 1924 to 1965.
As welcome as change may be, however, it must come about in a way the American people have considered and approved, a way codified in laws passed by our elected representatives. Such great changes as are now occurring in the population of our nation, and in the distribution of useful work, and even in the languages spoken in our communities, require the approval and ratification of the American people. Otherwise we are not a democracy.
Our nation is being transformed before our eyes, not in any way we willed or planned or specified or approved or voted for, but haphazardly, by vast influxes of people who have come not because they are the most able, or most desired, or best qualified, or most useful, or most likely to make good Americans, but simply because they are the most adjacent, and the most audacious in evading our laws and border controls. Because the federal authorities will not enforce our laws — existing laws, laws passed by our own elected Congress! — our states and municipalities, our hospitals and schools, our welfare and police and prison systems, are being beggared by the demands placed upon them by foreigners who scoff at the procedures we have carefully established for entry into the United States.
The matter of unrestrained illegal immigration is linked to, though it is not the same as, the issue of immigration at large. Very few Americans are hostile to immigration. The overwhelming majority of us, after all, are descended from lawful immigrants, if we are not actually lawful immigrants ourselves. However, just as we insist that the laws of this republic be properly, fairly and humanely enforced by the officers of this republic, we also insist that, as a nation of free citizens, we should participate, through our political institutions, in decisions about the number of immigrants to be admitted, the countries or regions we should prefer them to come from, and the kinds of skills we should like them to bring to our republic.
That participation is being denied to us. It is now almost 40 years since the revolutionary Immigration Act of 1965, which created the current regime of legal immigration. Did that act work as intended? Does it need revising? Adjusting? Repealing? Leaving alone? There is apparently a consensus among our political classes and media elites that this topic is out of bounds — that to broach it in the public forum is "nativist," "racist," or "bigoted." Why? Is not the composition of our country's population a matter American citizens ought to be concerned with? Is it improper for us even to discuss what kind of country our children and grandchildren will spend their lives in?
My fellow Americans, I urge you to cast a vote for me in November. I promise you that my first acts as President will be to secure our nation's borders and points of entry, identify and expel all foreigners who are living here unlawfully, punish all American corporations who have violated our laws by employing illegal aliens, and ask Congress to assist my administration in drafting a comprehensive new Immigration Bill on legal immigration, one suitable for the conditions of the early 21st century.
Even in the event I am not successful in my quest for the Presidency, your vote will have helped make it clear to our established political parties, and to our representatives and judges and administrators, that we, the citizens of the United States, cherish our laws, even if our government does not; that we desire to see those laws enforced — fairly, properly, humanely, without discrimination, but enforced — and that we insist on having some say in the composition of the country that we shall hand on to our children: its population, its environment, its customs, its language, its religions, its legal and political traditions, its values. Cast your vote for me in November!
Here is my prediction. Should a candidate come up saying these things, or anything close to them, and should that candidate's campaign not be derailed by the machinations of his opponents or the media, or by some gross blunder of his own, he will get at least twenty million votes next November — more than Ross Perot got in 1992.
From which party's candidate will most of those votes be taken? Figure it out for yourself. Will those votes be enough to change the outcome of the election? Heck, I don't know. As I said, the spreadsheet shufflers are still bickering about 1992, and a great many things can happen in the next 13 months. It is certainly possible, though.
It is possible, in other words, that the 2004 presidential election will be the first one in U.S. history to be decided on the National Question: Who are we, and who do we wish to be? If I were George W. Bush, I'd be having nightmares about this.