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Perot's Party: Ambiguity in a System Designed for Clarity

September 22, 1996|Martin Walker | Martin Walker is U.S. bureau chief for Britain's The Guardian, and author of "The President We Deserve; Bill Clinton's Rise and Falls and Comebacks," published next week by Crown

WASHINGTON — The presidential debates commission may have done Ross Perot an ironic favor by excluding him from the ultimate talking-heads show. The polls suggest that the publicity provoked by the controversial decision is generating public sympathy for a candidate who looks unfairly treated. Perot, who has made spirited defiance his stock-in-trade, is unlikely to miss this new opportunity.

But does the country really want to undergo yet again the dislocations of a third-party intervention into a political system that has evolved into a shape best adapted to just two?

One initial weakness of the Clinton administration was the president's feeble win. Ross Perot took 19% of the 1992 vote, President George Bush had 38%, so the governor of Arkansas reached the White House with just 43% of the vote. Every Democratic congressman was elected with more than that, so their traditional deference and party loyalty was diluted.

More to the point, conservative groups, radio talk-show hosts and be-medalled patriots unhappy with a president who had avoided military service were all encouraged to assume that Clinton had slithered unfairly into an office to which he had sparse title.

The American political system is designed to reflect clear verdicts. There can be just one president at a time. The congressional committees, those powerful engines of legislation, are shaped around an array of strong chairmen who depend in turn on their party having won a clear majority.

The system was designed from the beginning to absorb ambiguity through the separation of powers--with Congress, the White House and the courts each having the power to balance the other. When any one of those three institutions is divided or its authority occluded, the balance goes askew. It is as if the Founding Fathers assumed the political certainties of a two-party system, of the kind with which they had been familiar from England's 18th-century Whigs and Tories.

Two-party systems are designed for clarity of choice. Other, multi-party systems have been deliberately drafted to achieve consensus. The postwar German electoral system was deliberately supposed to encourage coalition governments and to strengthen the center, in order to avoid any recurrence of political extremism.

The result is that whatever party a German votes for, the centrist rump of the Free Democrats always get in--even though they sometimes have to struggle to make the essential threshold of 5% of the vote. For the past 14 years, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's conservative government has depended on the Free Democrats. In the 1970s, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's Social Democratic government also depended on the Free Democrats.

There is a role in the U.S. tradition for third parties, but it has less to do with becoming the centrist group with the permanent right to decide the balance of power, and far more to do with an ability to express voter dissatisfaction over the way the other two parties are going.

This helps explain why Perot is currently running far less well than he did in 1992. Perot is running against historical precedent--which says third parties rarely do well in a second election. Moreover, Perot has already fulfilled his historic function. Third parties do not so much decide U.S. elections as force the two majority parties to adapt and survive by making fundamental policy shifts.

Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party of 1912 ultimately forced the reluctant Republicans to swallow the Progressive reforms that tamed unbridled capitalism. George C. Wallace's third-party bids of 1968 and 1972 shifted the Republican Party from its Lincolnesque tradition of freeing the slaves, to its subsequent successful courtship of the Southern white vote.

Perot's 1992 campaign forced Clinton to embrace the Perotistas' main concern, the federal budget deficit. Clinton's first budget slashed his campaign promises of education and job training programs from $88 billion to a puny $16 billion. That was as much as Congress would swallow after Perot's deficit-monster rhetoric. The real legacy of Perot's 1992 campaign may be the way that a deficit which was then nearing $300 billion is down this year to $127 billion and dropping.

The strength of the two-party system is that it virtually forces changes and renewal within each of the giant coalitions that results, and it also usually provides each of them with a lengthy enough period of tenure to have a decent shot at carrying out their ideas.

By contrast, a three or multi-party system tends to produce instability--like Italy's 51 governments in 50 years. Worse still for a nation, it can seal regional differences into political permanence by encouraging the growth of regional parties--just as the Lombard League is now pursuing separatism for northern Italy.

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