The way of all third ways: Baker on Friedman the grand mentioner, Obama the centrist, Bloomberg the liberal

Michael Bloomberg. (Azi Paybarah, via flickr)
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“Thanks to a quiet political start-up that is now ready to show its hand, a viable, centrist, third presidential ticket, elected by an Internet convention, is going to emerge in 2012.”

Tom Friedman wrote that, and apparently believes it. It is an arguable statement.

Forget the fact that the third-party thing never actually happens, or that Friedman periodically heralds the rise of an alternative to the major parties in time for a presidential election.

The idea that this is the year actually defies present political reality by suggesting that the problem, in the age of the Barack Obama and the Gang of Six, is some great gaping void in the ideological middle.

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So what’s this all about, really?

I asked Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University (a former Democratic Senate staffer who served most recently as a senior adviser to Senators Chuck Hagel and Pat Leahy in 2000), to try to answer that question.

His immediate take: “I think Tom Friedman’s taken over the position of being the grand mentioner of incipient movements that are going to solve all of our problems.”

Speaking generally about the eternally awaited, never-arriving, extra-partisan solution to Washington gridlock, Baker said, “The thing is particularly now, particular at a time when the party loyalty seems to be so firmly cemented in people’s minds, even though they deplore harsh partisanship—the franchise of the two parties is just so strong in this country.

“One of the things political scientists managed to figure out is that given the limited information voters have about government in general the one thing they do know is whether they’re Republican or Democratic even though they profess to be independent.

“Because it’s heuristic, a shortcut or kind of a quick clue to help them make a decision. Party is it, and every survey in the last 60 years that is respectable indicates that’s the one clue people use to make their decisions.

“So the idea that some admirable but no-name operation comes along —Concord Coalition and all of these people are so well-meaning—but it just flies in the face of the fact that people make their decisions on the simplest basis that requires the least amount of searching around for information.”

Baker emphatically does not believe the idea that there is more likely to be a “viable” third-party movement this time around than in past elections.

”It’s a fool’s errand,” he said. “As appealing as the idea is, it’s sort of like the idea of the silent majority of centrists whose numbers are supposed to be legion, but when it comes down to it fall out as either Democrats or Republicans or leaners one way or another.

And he thinks the president’s wont to compromise with his political opponents, and his basic political philosophy, makes it all the more implausible that a candidate of the “radical center” will find a vacuum to exploit in time for 2012.

”Obama really as an easement on the center,” Baker said. “He has optioned the center. Ever since his 2004 speech nominating John Kerry in Boston, he’s talked about how there’s not a red America or a blue America and so on. He’s positioned himself as a reasonable grown-up in an American polity full of blowing demagogues.

”So I think the progressives are correct in the sense that he really is a centrist. They thought he was one of them through the primaries, but I think since then on many counts he’s disappointed them. The one thing he’s given them is Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and in fact he won’t defend the Defense of Marriage Act. But on economic issues he’s been more than willing to work with the Republicans to kind of preserve the economic advantage of upper-income Americans.

“From the point of view of the Tea Party, Obama’s a socialist. That to me is a very unrealistic appraisal of Obama, and I think they use that particular epithet because they don’t want to reach into the bag of racist epithets, but I just don’t see a zone of entry.”

It may be easy to start a third-party group, in other words, but it highly difficult to make one that is at all relevant.

”There’s a group called the Third Way,” Baker said. “It’s a successor to previous efforts like the Democratic Leadership Council, to try to drag the Democrats out of what they consider to be the clutches of the left wing. It’s very well-intentioned. The logic is that there’s a constituency out there for a kind of sensible moderate centrism that somehow has potential strength, but it’s never been demonstrated.

“You can always get some benevolent billionaire to bankroll an organization that’s going to be able to commission op-eds and have various events full of moderate luminaries, usually who are no longer in public office. But they don’t go anywhere.

“For a movement to be successful, or even partially successful, you need to have a compelling figure identifying with it, whether Ross Perot or Sarah Palin or William Jennings Bryan, you need someone who can galvanize it.”

What about Michael Bloomberg?

“I think certainly he’s got the financial juice to do it—who knows,” Baker said. “Here’s the interesting thing. Let’s suppose that the individual that they choose to front, the person who’s going to be the visible sign of this institution, is someone like Bloomberg. He’s a mayor of New York, a big supporter of same sex marriage, he’s leading a campaign against guns, and now a campaign against coal.

“These are not centrist positions.”