Tea for Three?

The first person I called after Governor Charlie Crist announced he will run for the Senate as an independent was Dean Barkley of Minnesota. Mr. Barkley knows all about the obstacles facing a third-party candidate. A member of Ross Perot’s Reform Party, he served out the final months of the late Paul Wellstone’s Senate term. Running in 2008 as an independent, he won 15% of the vote despite raising a shade over $160,000. “I’m very glad Crist did it,” Barkley told me when I reached him by phone. “I don’t really care what his reasons are. It shows that the window for an independent movement is getting bigger and bigger. Most centrists or moderates don’t like either party. They’re basically exasperated with both.”

The question is whether that exasperation Mr. Barkley senses can be harnessed by candidates like Mr. Crist in a way that will boost significant numbers to power. In a Senate, where the ability to gain cloture falls short by a single vote, even one seat is significant. But that edge is not likely to last long. Mr. Crist’s departure from the GOP makes him the second major GOP officeholder to leave since the 2008 elections due to ideology (and self interest – right, Arlen Specter?) and could set the stage for the emergence for a viable third-party, something that has happened only rarely, with Teddy Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” Progressive Party in 1912 and Ross Perot’s Reform Party in 1996. Make no mistake about it, the barriers to entry for a new political party are about as high as can be. To compete with the big boys, you need money, organization, dedicated followers, and strong candidates. As Perot found out, it takes more than just a few rich people and a strong showing in one election to build a party. No one thinks that Crist, a notoriously fickle and self-interested politician, will somehow become the leader of a political movement for all the disaffected moderates in America. His move was as much about not wanting to get blown out by Marco Rubio than anything else.

Mr. Barkley believes that the biggest problem facing a burgeoning third-party is money. “All the big money now is in the Democratic and Republican party,” said Barkley. “It’s very difficult to get the finances to compete, especially on the national stage. For us, once Perot cut off the faucet, the party died. You need a famous person like [Jesse] Ventura in Minnesota or someone rich.” Barkley pointed to a man in New York that fit that description to a T. “I think if Michael Bloomberg had run for president, then he would have done very well. Maybe he would have won if Obama hadn’t been the Democratic nominee. He’s got a lot of money, and name recognition. The question is can you bring them together under one umbrella.”

Ultimately, Barkley is optimistic about the chances for a viable third party emerging from the pack. “I think it will as long as the other two parties continue doing what they’re doing, then it’s inevitable that another party will emerge. It’s not a question of if but when.” If it happens, wouldn’t it be ironic that, in their quest for ideological purity, the Republicans, who screamed about the country turning into Europe, helped enable a multi-party system of democracy?