George Washington Plunkitt (1842-1924), who practiced what he cheerfully called "honest graft" on behalf of Tammany Hall (and himself), made up with pith what he lacked in polish when he explained: "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em." Today another New Yorker, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is weighing his opportunities which, because he is a billionaire, he thinks might include becoming president.
He has a versatility of allegiance. A liberal Democrat until 2001, he then fancied becoming mayor, so he became a Republican to avoid a Democratic primary. Last week he said he is now an independent.
The most consequential American third-party candidate was Ralph Nader in 2000. But for his 97,488 votes in Florida, which George W. Bush won by 537 votes, Al Gore probably would be finishing his second term. But even successful independent or third-party candidates have one thing in common: They lose.
A candidate can succeed in giving an aggrieved minority a voice—e.g., George Wallace, speaking for people furious about the '60s tumults. A candidate can highlight an issue, as Ross Perot did with the deficit in 1992. A candidate can advertise an entire agenda that the two major parties are slow to consider, as Socialist candidate Norman Thomas did several times. But the winner-take-all policy by which 48 states allocate electoral votes buttresses the two major parties. (Maine and Nebraska give an electoral vote to the winner of each of their congressional districts, and the two votes for their senators to the winner of the statewide popular vote, but neither state has ever had a divided allocation.) In 1992, Perot won 18.9 percent of the popular vote—and no electoral votes. In 1924, Wisconsin Sen. Robert La Follette, the Progressive Party's candidate, won almost 5 million votes (16.6 percent) but carried only Wisconsin.
In 1948, however, South Carolina's Gov. Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrats' candidate, won only 2.4 percent of the vote but carried four Southern states with 38 electoral votes. The most spectacular popular participation in presidential politics outside the two-party framework got Wallace on all 50 states' ballots in 1968, when impediments to ballot access were much more onerous than they are today. In California, he had to get 66,000 signatures—not a daunting number, but he had to get them in 1967, and every person had to fill out a two-page legal-size form. In Ohio, he had to get the absurd total of 433,000—in just 10 weeks. In November he won only 12.9 percent of the vote, but carried five Southern states with 45 electoral votes.
In 1948, Harry Truman beat Thomas Dewey in Ohio, Illinois and California by less than 1 percent. If Dewey had carried two of them, no candidate would have won a majority of electoral votes (the totalthen was 531) and the election, because of Thurmond, would have been settled by the House of Representatives. Bloomberg, by carrying one big state or a few small ones, could prevent any candidate from winning 270 electoral votes, sending the election to the House. There each state's delegation would cast a single vote.
In today's Congress, Democrats control 26 delegations, Republicans 21 and 3 are evenly divided. The 2008 winner would be picked by the next Congress, the composition of which will be different, but one thing is certain: It would select the nominee of one of the two parties.
An independent candidate needs three things—a vivid personality, a burning issue and a regional base. Think Wallace. Bloomberg has none of the three. Making guns, cigarettes and trans fats scarce—three of his mayoral causes—does not constitute a presidential agenda. His emerging national issue is competence. But another Michael—Dukakis, in 1988—tried that. ("This election is not about ideology. It's about competence.") On behalf of what causes would Bloomberg be competent?
It is an old and recurring utopianism: "The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things" (Friedrich Engels). People can be tiresome to politicians because people are responsible for what Bloomberg calls "the tired debate between the left and the right, between Democrats and Republicans, between Congress and the White House." But we have different parties because people differ, in goals and sensibilities. We have separation of powers because the Founders thought tension and conflict between the political branches would be inevitable, even healthy.
The two major parties are sensitive market mechanisms: What makes Bloomberg think they are failing to supply something the public strongly demands? Where the parties are failing to "get things done," it is because people disagree about what ought to be done. It is said, with exquisite vacuousness, that Bloomberg represents "post-partisanship." If so—if he is not a partisan of any large, controversial causes—why is he needed?