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Party of One

When you read as much stuff on politics as I do, there's an odd sort of exultation when you spot something so very poorly reasoned that you can spend many pleasurable hours tearing it apart. It helps when the author of such a "pinata" (i.e., it can be hit from just about any direction) is arrogantly or angrily wrong, stamping his or her feet at the very necessity of having to explain obvious truths that are anything but obvious or true. That's why, on doctor's orders, I only allow myself to read Peggy Noonan's columns, so predictably full of rich manure, now and then.

Today the famous pollster and sometimes-Democratic, sometimes-strategist, Mark Penn, has published an op-ed in the Washington Post that is Noonan-esque in its strongly-held folly. You can read the whole thing, but basically, Penn is saying that the vast uptick in independent voter sentiment in this country is creating a good environment for a centrist third party that's socially liberal and economically conservative, and Penn points to the rise of the UK's Liberal Democrats as an example of what could happen here.

As Jon Chait notes in his own demolition of Penn's column, the first contention is demonstrably wrong, though it appears it will take wooden stakes to kill it:

In fact, pollsters and public opinion experts -- a group that apparently excludes Penn -- understand that independent self-identification largely reflects a desire not to be seen as a closed-minded, automatic vote. It does not, however, reflect actual voting independence. Most self-identified independents are at least as partisan in their voting behavior as self-identified Democrats or Republicans. It's largely a class phenomenon, with wealthier and more educated voters being more likely to call themselves independent, but not more likely to go astray in the voting both. The rise of independent self-identification has little to do with voters moving toward the center or the parties moving toward the extremes. Plenty of those self-identified Democrats in the 1950s voted for Ike.

In other words, actual as opposed to professed independent political behavior--i.e., ticket-splitting--has regularly decined now for decades, as has the percentage of the electorate made up of "true" independents. So there is no ripe uncaptured constituency out there, and to the extent that it even exists, it's ideologically polyglot, not a "centrist" coalition ready for the taking. Many self-professed "independents," as we've seen once again in the Tea Party Movement and in elements of the Left disgruntled with Obama and before him with Bill Clinton, are more ideological than self-professed partisans. Maybe they'll vote, and maybe they won't, but they are not combinable in some sort of third-party impulse.

More importantly, as Penn does acknowledge, there are powerful institutional barriers to the rise of third parties. But in noting the failure of the last two major efforts (John Anderson's in 1980, and Ross Perot's in 1992 and 1996), Penn simply says they failed because neither leader was "dynamic" enough. Perhaps, as some observers will undboutedly conclude, Penn's column is really a public valentine to some very rich person (e.g., Michael Bloomberg) who might look in the mirror and see the leader "dynamic" enough to succeed where so many others, including reasonably dynamic people like Teddy Roosevelt, have failed. But in any event, Penn's case for the viability of a third party totally depends on his analysis of the "centrist" and "independent" electorate, which is bogus to begin with.

Perhaps sensing the weakness of his case (or just looking for a news "hook"), Penn then hauls in the Liberal Democrats in an effort to divine some sort of transatlantic movement. You wouldn't know if from his account, but far from being a "new" phenomenon, the LibDems represent a centuries-old political tradition (technically, the party represents a merger of the ancient Liberals with the Social Democrats, a splinter party that left Labour for many of the same reasons that Tony Blair and his associates found for reforming it a few years later). And it's not exactly easy to match the Lib Dems to Penn's template of "socially liberal and fiscally conservative" voters. Aside from "change," they are for tax increases to reduce public debt, legalized same-sex marriages, major reductions in defense spending, liberalized immigration laws, and more aggressive participation in Europe. Their opposition to British entry in the Iraq War is probably the recent position with which they were most identified. Does this agenda sound "nonpartisan centrist" in any context that is transferable to America, or to Penn's own agenda? Or more like the left wing of the Democratic Party, which Penn despises?

Moreover, "Cleggmania" aside, it's very unlikely that the LibDems will make gains in their parliamentary representation that are in any way comparable to the share of the popular vote they receive today. And that's in a country where the barriers to third parties are considerably lower than in the U.S.

I am not, as it happens, among the vast ranks of Penn-haters in the progressive blogosphere. I gave his last book one of its more favorable reviews. But the reality is that Mark Penn is largely frozen out of today's Democratic Party elites thanks to years of intra-party combat and particularly his abrasive role in Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. Yes, he's very wealthy and still has the juice, it appears, to command the op-ed pages of the Washington Post when he feels like it. The third party he describes as just over the horizon, however, is pretty much a party of one.

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A lot of people have said a lot of ugly things about Mark Penn, but comparing him to Peggy Noonan is a low blow. A well-deserved one, I might add - thanks! There is only one party in 20-21st Century America with a track record of fiscal responsibility - the Dems. Dems balance the budget and Repubs unbalance it. That's easier to prove empirically than proving that water freezes at 32 degrees F.

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