As the 1996 presidential election approaches, our nation faces a political climate undergoing great change. Last November, voters rejected the Democratic party in dramatic fashion. Now it appears they are gradually becoming disenchanted with an increasingly divided Republican party. Once again, we face the prospect of a third party challenger in the coming race. A third presidential candidacy could have a major effect on the presidential election and on American politics in general.
In a democratic political framework supposedly governed by the principle of choice, American voters have very few options to choose from. The Democrats have for the most part given up their positive vision of government and their faith in its power to do good. Instead of arguing against the elimination of government programs that they once touted as essential, the Democrats simply argue with the Republicans over the relative size of those cuts. The Democrats have turned themselves into a "Republican Lite" party. Do they offer us great taste--or are they just less filling?
The support that has been lost by the Democrats has not been transferred to the Republicans. Although the Republicans have pushed through an impressive amount of legislation in their new reign in the House, they have not succeeded in endearing themselves to the American people.
One reason for disenchantment with Republicans is that they may have taken their crusade against big government too far, leaving themselves open to strong criticism for their attacks on popular programs. A second reason concerns the dissension in the party that is rearing its ugly head. The unity the party demonstrated in passing "Contract with America" items has all but vanished, a victim of presidential political ambitions and ideological differences.
The Democratic party has forsaken its traditional beliefs and consequently it no longer represents a strong alternative to the Republican agenda. The Republicans, for their part, are divided among themselves as they attempt to determine what they stand for. It appears that there exists a definite need for a third political presidential candidate to fill the vacuum in contemporary American politics.
The list of possible third party presidential candidates is a familiar one. General Colin Powell, former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Steve Forbes, the irrepressible Ross Perot and crusading consumer Ralph Nader have been raised as possibilities.
It is still too early to begin picking out favorites for the coming election. But we would certainly welcome the addition of a new voice to the American political scene (assuming that such a voice is a reasonable and concerned one). Even after jarring events like the surprising success of Ross Perot in 1992 and the startling outcome of last November's elections, both parties still remain out of touch with their constituents. The Democrats and Republicans need a wake-up call today as much as they ever did.
The appearance of a third presidential candidate could have the disadvantage of splitting the vote of a popular candidate, leaving the winner without a mandate. However, a third candidate would also force the two existing parties to stake out their positions more clearly.
Many significant obstacles face a third party candidate for the president and the rise of a third party in general. One of the most formidable of these obstacles is current campaign finance law. It is virtually impossible for third candidates to receive the Federal matching funds that play so crucial a role in the political process in the age of mass media.
Some change in this area may be warranted. Perhaps current laws could be relaxed so that third party candidates, if they have a certain amount of support or can make it onto the ballot in a certain number of states, would be eligible to receive such funds. The current system's privileging of the existing two parties, the result of historical accident, has no strong justification.
Election law as it stands reinforces the existing power structure. It is clearly in the self-interest of current political leaders to oppose any major change. But if the American people seek a third option to provide them with the vision and unity that the other two parties lack, our government should not stand in the way.