When it comes to major national issues such as slavery, Prohibition, the federal deficit, and civil rights, as well as energy policy and the environment, third parties have long served as an important outlet for moving political debates forward. As we've repeatedly seen in American history, even when a third-party candidate loses, sometimes his ideas win. Political scientist Daniel Mazmanian points out that "usually after a strong showing by a minor party, at least one of the major parties shifts its position, adopting the third party's rhetoric if not the core of its programs." This may be the least obvious, but possibly most important, element of a third-party run for the White House in 2008. We tend to think of elections as zero-sum games—and usually for good reason. But when it comes to a third-party candidate, a genuine opportunity exists for an independent to dictate the issues that come to the fore, not only on the campaign trail but also after the election is over and governing begins.
The American people have become convinced that government in its current form is simply not working. We have not been able to defeat al Qaeda, catch Osama bin Laden, or develop a comprehensive plan to fight terrorism or to extricate ourselves from Iraq—much less develop a comprehensive policy for the region. Domestic problems also appear to present a daunting challenge for which we have no answers. We have no clear plan to pay for our children's education, our own healthcare or retirement, or to provide for our aging parents. We are presented with partisan rhetoric and attack politics instead. And the American people are yearning for, even demanding, an end to the divisiveness and the development of policies that produce real results, not just sound bites.
Centrist. There is a segment of the electorate that I have called the Restless and Anxious Moderates, or the rams, who I believe will decide the election. They include most of the independents and a fair number of Democrats and Republicans as well. These voters are practical and nonideological and unabashedly results-oriented. They eschew partisanship and want the parties to come together to confront the difficult challenges America is facing. Indeed, it is my argument that the rams could become the Restless and Anxious Majority if a credible third-party candidate emerges. The RAMs make up roughly 35 to 40 percent of the American electorate. RAMs are ordinary, average Americans. They go online, they watch the news, and they are interested, but they are not the political activists of the blogosphere or the evangelical right. They are centrist, middle-aged, middle-class, practical people who believe in consensus solutions to problems. When they look at politics in Washington, they are aghast.
In America's recent political history, there have been a number of times when the rams have been strongly motivated to vote for what they saw as nonpolitical alternatives. Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 was able to rally the country as a common-sense centrist who pursued moderate social policies that enhanced and protected the New Deal, moved inexorably to address civil rights, and developed the Cold War consensus promoting a strong stance against Soviet expansion. In 1964, RAMs coalesced strongly in reaction to Barry Goldwater and voted overwhelmingly for Lyndon Johnson. Following the divisive campaign of 1968, Richard Nixon was able to rally the rams with his own appeal to the people he came to call "the silent majority."
In 1976, a healthy percentage of RAMs saw Jimmy Carter as the alternative to the failed policies and dishonesty of the Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations. Similarly, in 1980 and 1984, Ronald Reagan was able to make the case to a solid majority of the rams that America needed limited government, a more optimistic worldview, and a stronger and more assertive foreign policy. In 1992, it was very clear that with the nation in recession and George H. W. Bush's policies having failed, the electorate was looking for change. However, with a divisive nominating process on the Democratic side and the lingering questions about Bill Clinton's personal life and draft status, there was a wide opening for third-party candidate Ross Perot. The RAMs became close to a majority of the country during that election.
The goal of the work that Mark Penn and I did with President Clinton was to get the Restless and Anxious Moderates back into the Democratic column in 1996. By talking about fiscally conservative issues in terms that Americans understood—not only balancing the budget but at the same time standing up for clean air and water, education for all, and medical care for the elderly and for the poor—Clinton spoke to commonsense values. As soon as he found his voice, the Restless and Anxious Moderates swung dramatically in his direction.
In 2000, George W. Bush won back a healthy number of the rams with his support for "compassionate conservatism" and appeared to be poised to govern in a centrist, inclusive manner. Bush was aided by Al Gore's break with Bill Clinton's electoral strategy and his advocacy of a neopopulist "people vs. the powerful" strategy, which clearly cost the vice president the 2000 election. But instead of building on his 2000 campaign rhetoric, President Bush let his coalition fray.