You must take one or the other, but neither of them are to be what they claim. Will there ever again be a legitimate third choice for the American voter? Elizabeth Farnsworth talks to our regular panel of historians, joined by William Kristol, about the upstart alternatives of past, present and future.
MS. FARNSWORTH: Now third parties and presidential politics. It's not only the Republicans who are gathering in California. The Reform Party is holding its nominating convention Sunday in Long Beach. Vying to head up that party's ticket are Texas businessman Ross Perot and former Colorado Governor Dick Lamm. We get a historical view on third parties from three NewsHour regulars: Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and author/journalist Haynes Johnson. They are joined tonight by William Kristol, editor and publisher of the 'Weekly Standard.' Thanks for being with us to all of you. Doris, beginning with you, what kind of circumstances in American history have given rise to third parties?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: The most important circumstances that have given rise to third parties are when neither of the major parties are representing a whole series of issues that people care deeply about. In fact, the subject has a special interest in my heart because the first published article I ever wrote in 1967 in the spring with a friend of mine in graduate school at Harvard argued for the need for a third party to challenge Lyndon Johnson and the Republicans, both of whom we claimed were giant hawks, so there was no place for the anti-war movement to go in the electoral system and neither party, we claimed, were representing the interests of women and poor and blacks.
Well, the 'New Republic' said they might be interested but we heard nothing. And meanwhile I was selected as a White House fellow, went to the White House, danced with Lyndon Johnson. He asked me to be his personal fellow at which point then the next day the 'New Republic' article came out saying, 'How to Dump Lyndon Johnson in 1968.' So I thought it was the end of me completely. But he said, oh, bring her down here and if I can't win her over in a year, no one can. And that's where my whole relationship with him began, why I became a presidential historian, why I'm probably sitting here today.
But, in other words, the larger point is that most important times in the populist and progressives were those times. In that case, no one was answering the needs of the working people. Neither party was. They came forward, and they were able then to affect whole parties in the next generation because they talked about eight-hour day, about direct election of Senators, about a progressive income tax. Those are the moments we look back to.
MS. FARNSWORTH: Some were not really parties, were they, Michael? They were vehicles for an individual or for a single cause, but they weren't parties in the sense that they had candidates in various--for the governors of various states or senator or whatever.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, President Historian: Absolutely. You know, one of the things that parties do, as Doris suggested, is to suggest a program or provide a vehicle for a personality who might otherwise be left out. Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, in 1912, probably the most commanding political figure in America at the time, ran within the Republican Party. He had served as President, the Republican President, was succeeded by his own choice, William Howard Taft, who he later felt was too conservative. TR ran against him and lost, became the Bull Moose Progressive Party candidate, and ran in 1912, won 88 electoral votes.
But the problem was that that was really just a vehicle for TR to win the presidency. Another very important thing that parties do is to, as you suggest, to elect governors and particularly to elect members of Congress. If TR had been elected President in 1912, he would have had in 1913 to deal with a Congress that was made up of Democrats and Republicans, basically two hostile parties who didn't owe him anything. I think what you would have seen is one of the problems with a third party candidate for President, if one ever were victorious, and that is he or she would have to deal with a hostile Congress on Capitol Hill.
MS. FARNSWORTH: But third parties, I mean, in this case, the Teddy Roosevelt candidacy made a huge difference. It got Woodrow Wilson elected. They have been very influential, haven't they?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: Oh, absolutely. No third party candidate has won, but they have changed things. I mean, Theodore Roosevelt elected Woodrow Wilson with 43 percent of the vote. Do we remember four years ago, Mr. Clinton won with 43 percent of the vote because it was split between George Bush and Ross Perot, who we're talking about tonight. So it does make a difference. And as Doris and Michael both said, not only is it a protest movement and it signals maybe changes in the country, anger over civil rights or, or populism or all these things that boil through our democracy, and they come forward, but no one's ever won yet in an independent movement. That's the key. It doesn't mean they can't in the age of television particularly.
MS. FARNSWORTH: Bill Kristol, why do you think that is? Why has none--why has no one running like that ever run?
BILL KRISTOL, The Weekly Standard: Typically, a third party will run the first time, and, and get some votes, and scare one of the two major parties into adopting part of its platform. Doris wished for a third party in 1967 and she got one in. In 1968, George Wallace ran, got, I think, 13 percent of the vote. Nixon basically was able to incorporate the Wallace voters in 1972, when he crushed McGovern and laid the basis for the Republicans presidential majority over the next 20 years.
Perot ran in ‘92, got 19 percent of the vote, the stronger showing since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, and the Republicans in 1994 at the congressional election were able to basically incorporate those Perot voters, add them to the traditional Republican voters by running on an outsider, anti-establishment, anti-Washington message, put the Perot vote together with the Bush vote and took over Congress, took over the House for the first time in 40 years.
The question really this year is, you know, to go back to normalcy, which would be for the third party to begin to fade away, because one of the two major parties has taken over its message and its voters, or could both parties fail to do that, and could Perot and the Reform Party or some other party conceivably, you know, merely emerge, sustain itself, and then emerge as a permanent third party, or conceivably as a challenger to one of the two major parties.
MS. FARNSWORTH: Okay. I'm going to get into that in a minute, but Doris, I want to know, there's been no coalescence of forces like the Republican Party, like the forces that pulled together to create the Republican Party in 1856. Why not?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think one of the things that's hard in the modern era is you need to build coalitions between working people, between farmers, and somehow when you look at the Reform Party, for example, even though a lot of their issues, I think, have a real currency among people, they care about the idea of campaign finance reform, they care about lobbying reform, they care perhaps about term limits, and they care about a deficit somehow.
It's not grounded. It's not grounded in the everyday life of people. Somehow this party hasn't made the argument that it's business that benefits from the campaign finance reform system that we now have, where the special interests have a special lobbying potentiality, so that we are affected every day by what happens in this government that's not really representing us. If the left wing were running a third party like the Perot Party and had it grounded in economic issues, downsizing and some of the Buchanan stuff that he talked about, I think it might be able to build a coalition. But it feels like it's floating out there right now and not grounded in any section or part of the country.
MS. FARNSWORTH: Interesting idea. Do you agree with that?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I do. Parties aren't mentioned in the Constitution, and certainly not a two-party system, but it is so strong that that has really remained since the middle of the 19th century, and to begin a party and to elect congressmen and senators in 435 districts and 100 senate seats and also governors, that's just an enormous enterprise. And to start from scratch and gain the kinds of support that you really need to gain to become an umbrella party in America, which is what both the Republicans and the Democrats are, is something that I think is going to be very difficult for some third party in the future to do.
So the result is I think you will continue to have third parties shooting from the sidelines, surfacing important issues, providing the kind of vehicle that Ross Perot's party will probably give him this year but not really growing in to one of the two major parties.
MS. FARNSWORTH: But do you think the forces do exist as they have in the past to create a third party if as Doris says the right message and the right party came along?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I have thought for a long time, for what it's worth, that both parties are up for grabs now, and they're both on the line in a way, but what we're also saying here, I think, all of us, each of us--
MS. FARNSWORTH: But why?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Because people believe it's not working, that, that they aren't delivering, you know, that one of the things is so called gridlock, for instance. The voters are very concerned about Washington doesn't work, and you see the spectacle of this Congress at the very last minute getting together with the President to pass some bills that they couldn't do for two years. And that really sort of induces more sense of cynicism and it opens an opportunity for someone to say, hey, we can do it. The problem is the public is also very practical. They want it to work, and they don't believe any new group is going to be able to do better if they don't have the leverage, if they don't have the coalitions that Michael and Doris are talking about. So that's the problem that faces any third party movement, I think.
MS. FARNSWORTH: Bill Kristol, where do you come down on this, the potential for a third party movement that had the right message?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: Well, again, I think Doris makes the key point, which is for a third party movement to really take off, I think it would have to be either a Ralph Nader or Jesse Jackson assault on a Democratic Party that has sold out liberalism, in effect, if Clinton were to lose this November, and it really could be a pretty serious split between those who think some new Democrat moderation is the way to go and a return to the liberal orthodoxy and the tax on business and the like is the way to go. Similarly on the right, if Dole loses, Buchananism poses a real threat to the Republican establishment.
The trouble with Perot's party, the Reform Party as a permanent vehicle, is it's not going to be clear what it stands for. I mean, campaign reform and lobbying reform are, I suppose, decent, maybe very good ideas, maybe not, but you really can't build a third party on that. And I think it's too easy for both parties to incorporate elements of the Perot agenda into their own agendas, and basically leave Perot perhaps getting 8 percent of the vote as just disaffected voters but not really laying the basis for a long-term challenge to either of the current two parties.
MS. FARNSWORTH: Doris, does this period remind you of any other period in the past? And we should mention there are other third parties besides the Reform Party. There's the Green Party. There's the Libertarian Party. Is there anything that really makes you think of some particular period in the past?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think if Haynes is right, that there's a real disaffection from both parties and people feeling that government isn't answering their needs, that in a certain way goes back to the pre-Civil War era when people felt that the Whigs and the Democrats were not answering their needs. And as a result, the Republican Party was formed as an anti-slavery party because neither party was able to accommodate this huge sentiment.
And the interesting thing is I think when you look at today, even though there's a lot of obstacles to a third party, what was the biggest obstacle in the past were people felt emotionally identified as a Republican or a Democrat for the last century. Their parents were one or the other. That was like a religion. It was like family. That has diminished. There's a lot more independence out there, and even if you are a Republican or a Democrat, it's not part of your identity in the same way. That leaves us free to move to another party if that party has a message that attacks our own needs and our own desires.
MS. FARNSWORTH: Thanks, Doris. Thanks all the rest of you.