As a political scientist I have never been a fan of third parties. A comparison of America's longtime two-party system with the multiparty regimes of countries like Italy, Israel, and France demonstrates that multiple parties not only contribute to political instability but also give small minorities of the population outsize influence, as a major party may be unable to form a parliamentary majority in without making unreasonable concessions to those minorities. (Of course, none of this applies to Israel's current military emergency, when all non-Arab parties have united in support of her survival.)
With the exception of the 1850s (when the Republican Party, birthed by the controversy initiated by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision took only two elections to displace the Whigs as the rival party in a two-party system), third parties have generally had a harmful influence in our own elections, since they tend to obstruct the effectuation of the reasonable wishes of a majority of the population. In some instances, fringe candidates — like Ralph Nader in 2000 — may arguably tilt the election away from what otherwise would have been the winning party (or so Democrats still maintain). But nobody denies that the 2000 election would have been a close call either way. More problematic is the effect that third-party candidates who draw a large segment of the electoral vote away from the two major parties — notably, Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and Ross Perot in 1992 — have had in swinging the election in a direction that probably would not have been favored by a clear majority of the electorate. (In both cases, the third-party candidate was driven by personal motives to prevent the election of a Republican.)
But the extraordinary situation now existing in the United States — with popular majorities clearly expressing distaste for both Donald Trump and Joe Biden — makes me wonder whether the country stands in need of a temporary bipartisan party that would nominate a political moderate for the presidency who would appeal to sensible voters on both sides of the usual political divide. It bears no emphasis here that Trump's embarrassing behavior has alienated a large number of Republicans, who would vote for him only because they fear a continuation of Biden's ruinous economic policies, along with his disregard for Constitutional authority when it comes to pandering to his favored constituencies (e.g., cancelling student debt) and his extreme, partisan appointments to regulatory agencies, which continue to stretch their authority beyond what Congressional enactments specify. Republicans would be motivated as well as by the hope that Trump would continue to fill judicial vacancies with originalist judges (even though Trump has recently severed connections with the Federalist Society, since its leaders refused to support his attempted reversal of the 2020 election). But is that enough to justify choosing as the nation's representative before the world someone whose personal conduct has grown only worse with time — to say nothing of the possibility of subjecting him to criminal penalties? (Doubts about Trump's cognitive stability have only been increased by his public remarks on October 10, days after the terrorist attack on Israel, in which he blamed Prime Minister Netanyahu for taking credit for the 2020 missile strike that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, saying that Netanyahu's act "let us down" and "was a terrible thing" that he will "never forget." He also maintained, implausibly, that if the 2020 Presidential election hadn't been "rigged" against him, "there would be nobody even thinking about going into Israel.")
Meantime, even Democratic elected officials have found Biden's open-borders policy so atrocious in its effect that they have forced him into an (at least temporary) retreat — to the point of suddenly reversing his 2020 pledge never to build an inch of border wall, without apology for the results that the policy has already generated, and without evidence so far that he will enforce actual limitations on illegal immigration. To boot, those concerned with the fate of the economy, social liberals though they may be, have cause for alarm in the announcement (featured in the lead story in the September 18 New York Times) that Biden plans "aggressive" new regulations on carbon emissions if elected to a second term. Despite the fragile state of the American economy and multiple crises abroad, he remarkably still regards climate change as the most pressing threat facing this country along with the world.
Additionally, doubts about the Administration's competence in foreign affairs — based on its precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan and slow-walking needed military aid to Ukraine — have only grown. The Administration, while continuing to provide aid to Israel, has heightened pressure on it to extend the recent temporary truce, which will enable Hamas to rebuild its military capacities. Secretary of State Blinken also acknowledged at one point that, money being fungible, the $6 billion in funds that the U.S. released to the Iranian government might ultimately be used to support its terror activities, rather than for "humanitarian" purposes (as the Administration originally claimed), then retracted that acknowledgment. (Following a tentative retraction of the release of the $6 billion, in mid-November the Administration announced the release of $10 billion to Iran supposedly to pay for its supply of electrical power to Iraq.) Then there was the alarming discovery that the administration's recently suspended "envoy" for Iran, Robert Malley, had not only maintained a "permissive" stance towards that country's support of terrorism, but may have had Iranian agents guiding his policies. Dare we trust these people with the continued responsibility for our foreign policy and our (underfinanced) military?
At the same time, two recent events on the Republican side have heightened my concern about the likely consequences of a Trump re-election. One was the irresponsible action of the Trumpian "gang of eight" in unseating the Republican Speaker of the House, simply for not giving them more of what they wanted (even though they had no chance of getting it) — which left us with a Speakerless House for three weeks. The other is the growth of isolationist sentiment among a significant faction of Republican Congressmen with regard to Ukraine, mimicking the disastrous isolationism of America Firsters in the face of Nazi aggression leading up to, and in the early years of, World War II. (Despite his Administration's foreign-policy accomplishment in negotiating the Abraham Accords, Donald Trump also laid the groundwork for Biden's disastrous, abrupt pullout from Afghanistan. And by promising to "end" the Ukraine war on the day he is elected, Trump has positioned himself as the prince of the isolationists. Whereas the election of Ronald Reagan prompted the Iranian government to release its American hostages on the day he took office, without any known "deal," Trump can only mean a total cutoff of aid to the Ukrainians.) So where is a sober-minded voter to turn?
On its website, the nascent No Labels Party (which Democratic donors and some state officials are making every effort to keep off the ballot) has not announced a Ukraine policy. The core of its stated economic program is compelling Congress to return to enacting a budget on time, as well as "preserving" Social Security and Medicare and promoting energy security – all of which sound like eminently reasonable goals. A lot of blanks obviously need filling in. But the presence of former Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman among its founders gives me some reason for hope that the party will nominate a Presidential candidate who will continue the Biden administration's support for the defense of Ukraine, on which the security of what is still rightly called the Free World now depends, along with stalwart support for Israel as it undertakes the necessary task of destroying Hamas once and for all.
So far, No Labels leaders have refrained from nominating a Presidential candidate, saying that they won't do so if entering the race will tilt the election to Trump (whom they abhor) over Biden (whose capacities they merely mistrust). But how can they or anyone tell in advance which major-party candidate will lose more voters to them?
It has also been reported that if No Labels chooses chooses to enter the Presidential race, its president, Nancy Jacobson, would favor a moderate Republican – Larry Hogan, the sober-minded and demonstrably competent former governor of Maryland, would make an excellent choice. (Presumably the vice-presidential slot would be filled by a mainstream Democrat.) The assumption is that choosing a Republican would be most likely to maximize the group's electoral appeal, given the disaffection of so many voters with Biden's policies and the embarrassment that Trump's behavior has caused so many Republicans. A recent prospect, West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin (who is declining to seek re-election) is a less appealing candidate, since his record of achievement consists chiefly of sometimes dissenting from Biden's policies, only to cave to them in the end, and then claiming to have been misled.)
At any rate, I'll now be giving No Labels a second look before casting my vote next year. I recommend that my fellow Americans, Republicans, Democrats, and independents, do the same. What is crucial to bear in mind is that under the Constitution, if no Presidential candidate receives an absolute majority of the electoral vote, the final selection of the President is made by the House of Representatives, voting on a one-vote-per-state basis, from among the top three candidates. This means that in order to have a shot at winning, the No Labels candidate need only place third, while winning enough electoral votes (from just a few states) to throw the election into the House. Given the widespread unpopularity of both Trump and Biden with much of the electorate, it is then reasonable to hope that – if Trump and Biden are the Democratic and Republican candidates, a sensible coalition of representatives from both parties in the House could be induced to make the No Labels candidate our next president. Should No Labels choose a respectable nominee, who is likely to select constitutionalist judicial appointees and law-respecting heads of administrative agencies; support an enhanced defense, including continued support for our allies in Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan; and forswear budget-busting domestic policies like college tuition waivers, it could do the nation an enormous service. Real conservatives as well as moderate liberals need to give serious consideration to this possibility.
One caveat: should the estimable Nikki Haley, the best candidate in the race, manage to secure the Republican nomination (and recent polls indicate that she is gaining on Trump), I urge voters to ignore the preceding argument and give her their utmost support!
David Lewis Schaefer is professor of political science, emeritus, College of the Holy Cross.