Voters do not want a Biden-Trump rematch — a third option might appeal

Before an assassin in 1935 ended his dreaming and scheming, Democrat Huey Long, Louisiana’s governor-turned-senator, articulated dissatisfaction with the two major parties. A demagogue of considerable intelligence and no scruples, he said of the nation’s binary choice:

“It puts me in mind of the patent-medicine man that used to come around our part of the country with two bottles of medicine. One he called High Popalorum. The other he called Low Popahirum. We asked him what was the difference, and he said the High Popalorum was made by taking the bark off a tree from the ground up, and the Low Popahirum by taking off the bark from the top down.”

Or as Alabama Gov. George Wallace said in his 1968 third-party presidential campaign, there isn’t “a dime’s worth of difference” between the parties. Today, some more-genteel people want to be poised in 2024 to break the two-party grip on presidential politics. Evidence of their gentility is that they aspire to be expendable: They hope their labors will be rendered unnecessary by one or both parties’ sparing voters in 2024 the unappetizing menu of 2020 reheated.

The No Labels group is spiritual kin to the late 19th century Mugwumps, who were mostly Republicans so appalled by their party’s seaminess they supported Democrat Grover Cleveland in 1884. No Labels people, who are refugees from both parties, share a Mugwumpean fastidiousness in rejecting both parties’ bad manners. Lacking, as yet, a policy agenda, No Labels’s principal regret, so far, is that poisonous tribalism prevents bipartisan approaches to obvious crises, such as the unsustainable trajectories of Social Security and Medicare.

Until now, No Labels has specialized in didactic pronouncements: “five facts” about this and that (the debt ceiling, inflation, etc.). Now, however, the group wants to threaten serious disruption: It is working to secure places on states’ presidential ballots in case the major parties again provide a dismal choice. One palatable nominee would cause No Labels to cheerfully stand down.

No Labels’ December 2022 poll of 26,000 registered voters in 50 states showed a large majority wants more than a binary choice. That is, however, probably usually true midway between presidential elections. No Labels stresses Gallup’s February finding: 28 percent identify as Democrats, 27 percent as Republicans, 44 percent as independents. Granted, many professed independents are behaviorally Republicans or Democrats. Still:

If Democrats nominate the incumbent president, whom almost half of Democrats today wish were not running. And if Republicans nominate someone who was more disapproved than approved before, during and after his presidency. And if No Labels can get sufficient ballot access (it already has succeeded in four states — Alaska, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon – and hopes for 30 by year’s end) to have a plausible path to 270 electoral votes: 61 percent of voters who say they are “open to” voting for a “moderate independent” equates to 37 percent of the electorate. Then No Labels could provide a third choice.

No Labels says its 2024 project is an “insurance policy”“an infrastructure for an independent” — to protect the electorate from the failure of the political market to supply what there is a demand for: fresh presidential talent. Then 2024 might bring the most dramatically nonbinary election since the Democratic-Republican framing of presidential politics began in 1856.

In 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party candidacy finished second by advocating progressive-cum-populist policies. In 1920, socialist Eugene Debs won about 3 percent of the popular vote by advocating government protections against industrialism’s vicissitudes. In 1948, Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond, South Carolina’s governor, won 39 Deep South electoral votes opposing civil rights. Also in 1948, former vice president Henry Wallace ran feebly against Harry S. Truman’s confrontational policy toward the Soviet Union. In 1968, George Wallace won 46 Deep South electoral votes by reviving Thurmondism and anticipating Trumpism: Wallace faulted U.S. politics for “too much dignity.” In 1992, tycoon Ross Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote inveighing against free trade and budget deficits.

Five of those (all but George Wallace) had policy agendas. No Labels has an atmospheric aspiration (civility, temperateness, bipartisanship) but cannot have an agenda until it has a candidate. Then, he or she could fill a policy lane as broad as today’s space between progressivism that politicizes kindergarten and much else, and “conservatism” that politicizes beer (brawl-a-day Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis: “Why would you want to drink Bud Light?”) and much else.

One or both of the major parties might, depending on their calculations of a third candidate’s appeal, accuse No Labels of being a spoiler. Let those parties try to explain how today’s politics could be spoiled.

— George Will is a libertarian-conservative writer and political commentator.

Voters do not want a Biden-Trump rematch — a third option might appeal



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