Is Third Party Centrism the Answer to Our Political Problems?

The third political party idea mentioned yesterday is further along than I thought:

Make Way for the Radical Center, by Thomas Friedman, Commentary, NY Times: …If … idiocy by elected officials sends you into a hair-pulling rage and leaves you wishing that we had more options today than our two-party system…, help may be on the way.

Thanks to a quiet political start-up…, a viable, centrist, third presidential ticket, elected by an Internet convention, is going to emerge in 2012. I know it sounds gimmicky — an Internet convention — but an impressive group of frustrated Democrats, Republicans and independents, called Americans Elect, is really serious, and they have thought out this process well. In a few days, Americans Elect will formally submit the 1.6 million signatures it has gathered to get on the presidential ballot in California as part of its unfolding national effort to get on the ballots of all 50 states for 2012.

The goal of Americans Elect is to take a presidential nominating process now monopolized by the Republican and Democratic parties, which are beholden to their special interests, and blow it wide open — guaranteeing that a credible third choice, nominated independently, will not only be on the ballot in every state but be able to take part in every presidential debate and challenge both parties from the middle…

“Our goal is to open up what has been an anticompetitive process to people in the middle who are unsatisfied with the choices of the two parties,” said Kahlil Byrd, the C.E.O. of Americans Elect, speaking from its swank offices, financed with some serious hedge-fund money…

The only rule is that a Democrat must run with a Republican or independent, and a Republican with a Democrat or independent. …

Write it down: Americans Elect. What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life — remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in. Watch out.

That’s sems like an oversell to me.

I think we are starting to see an answer to the question of who will be blamed for the mess we are in, and more generally for the dysfunction in Washington. Not one party or the other, but politicians generally. That disappoints me — I think it’s possible to point a finger at one of the two parties and assign a preponderance of responsibility. But the public sees little but partisan bickering and big unsolved problems, not much in the way of leadership on either side, and there’s been little if any headway on the problems that matter to them the most (or at least the problems they’ve been convinced ought to matter to them most, in some cases political dysfunction and the inability of the media to step in and clarify the issues has misled them here too).

One more thought. Friedman says at one point that “President Obama should dump the Democrats and run as an independent, which he is, at heart, anyway.” But Obama shows that having a centrist in the White House doesn’t make anyone happy (except perhaps a gang of only six). So why do we think milquetoast centrism as practiced by Obama, or even radical centrism whatever that is, rather than strong leadership is the key to finding a way to move forward on the problems that people care about the most? I want better performance from Democrats, particularly from the leaders in the Party, not a third party that potentially splinters the coalition and robs it of its power.

[Update: I wish I’d said more about the irony of Friedman’s note that Americans Elect is “financed with some serious hedge-fund money.”]

This post originally appeared at Economist’s View and is reproduced here with permission.