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A Third-Party Candidate in 2012? Probably Not.

Well, not quite or maybe just not yet. Tom Friedman has called for the establishment of a third party, which is the alternative put forward almost every time a Democratic president disappoints. And Tom’s disappointment is hardly an insignificant occurrence in the president’s ongoing campaign for reelection. This time, there’s another incentive, and it is that the Republicans may nominate, as the Democrats see it, one of several crackpots who just might win in 2012.

Of course, this is not exactly logical. The last time there was a “substantial” independent in the presidential race was 2000, when Ralph Nader (I’ve known him for decades and I’ve always believed he was a lunatic; I’m not going to tell you about his finickiness with blueberries at our picnic) and only 537 of the 97,488 votes he won in Florida threw the election to the GOP nominee, the already-ridiculed-by-liberals George Bush. (He knew nothing, right? Well, I believe, on the evidence, that he knows at least as much as Barack Obama, and quite possibly more!) When Republican congressman John Anderson ran as an independent against incumbent Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, he got so few votes that he didn’t influence the outcome at all. Reagan won by a landslide larger than FDR’s popular and electoral victory against Alf Landon in 1936. Then, in 1992, there was Ross Perot who, despite winning 19 percent of the ballot count—split between voters who would have otherwise cast their ballots evenly between Vice President George Bush and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton—was also a weirdo, a real weirdo. (What was that about the Republicans planning to upset his daughter’s nuptials? Or his stepping out of the race and back into it?)

When Vice President Harry Truman succeeded to the presidency upon Franklin Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, there was immediate rumbling against the succession, even though it was constitutionally axiomatic. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., an eloquent historian but a very pompous man, began to argue that, rather than Truman being the Democratic nominee in 1948, it should be Dwight Eisenhower. This came to nothing. (Ike had no interest in being nominated by either party in 1948.) But two wings of the Democratic Party began the long process of secession. On the right, Senator J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina ran for president as a “Dixiecrat” and won four southern states. He was off the ballot in 29 states. (In 2002, Senator Trent Lott resigned his position as senate minority leader because at Thurmond’s 100th birthday he lamented the 1948 defeat: “If the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years.” What problems? Everybody knew what he was talking about.)

By the time Henry Wallace became a Democrat he had already positioned himself on the agrarian left of the party but with more than a soupcon of aggressive spiritualism. He had a long-time guru whom he addressed as “guru.” A scientific corn farmer and the editor and owner of agricultural publications (later the owner of a giant seed company), Wallace climbed quickly in stature among Democrats. FDR made him secretary of agriculture in his first and second terms. Then, when FDR’s vice president, John Nance Garner, turned against his boss and actually ran against him in the pre-convention proceedings, Wallace was tapped as vice president for the third term, a position from which he quickly moved to the left ... to the left left. In 1944, Roosevelt dispensed with his services as veep but designated the sacrificial lamb as secretary of commerce. After much provocation by Wallace, including his sweet affections for Josef Stalin, Harry Truman fired him and, in due course, he was named editor-in-chief of The New Republic by its owner, Michael Straight, who, alas, had been a minor Soviet agent—but a Soviet agent, nonetheless—in Britain. After about a year of active fellow-travelling (does everybody, does anybody recall the meaning of that word?), Wallace left TNR and became the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party in 1948, the American Labor Party in New York. He was off the ballot in just three states but received some 20,000 votes less than Thurmond—and no states at all. He did, however, receive a bit more than 1.15 million votes altogether, of which some 700,000 came from New York and California, presumably from the pro-communist labor unions and from Jews who had not yet learned. Oh yes, and the big scare that reactionary Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican governor of New York, would win collapsed with Truman laughing and holding up the front page of the Chicago Tribune, its topside reading, “Dewey by a Landslide.” 

So the notion that a third party would be a successful party, even in times of stress, is dubious. Theodore Roosevelt did run in 1912 as the third-party candidate of the Progressive Party and came in second, winning six states to Republican William Howard Taft’s two. But Woodrow Wilson won 40 states. He was not an incumbent.

The New Republic was founded in 1914 on the embers of the fiery conflict between Roosevelt and Wilson two years before. 

Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.