POLITICAL parties weren't envisioned by America's founding fathers, or by the Constitution. So it shouldn't be surprising that the two-party scene Americans generally view as an ordained birthright gets shaken up from time to time.
Whigs were around for two decades in the early 19th century and melted away. Assorted colorfully named third-party challengers - mugwumps, bull mooses, Dixiecrats, Progressives, and Perotistas - arose to challenge the Big Two, sometimes upset the balance, but did not win. And, of course, the Big Two occasionally change polarity, like the earth shifting its magnetic poles, and switch the geography of their political bases.
All of which is to say that despite the brilliant salesmanship of Ross Perot, enthusiastic speculation about Gen. Colin Powell, and new hoop dreams about Sen. Bill Bradley, it's formidably difficult to become president via the third-party route. Too bad.
Ross Perot proved that actually talking about issues in factual detail could win the attention of a substantial segment of the populace. Colin Powell is that rare phenomenon, a sensible, intelligent patriot with big-scale management experience. Bill Bradley is an equally rare phenomenon: a realistic, scholarly (how seldom do those two terms go together), dedicated political visionary.
Think a minute. How often in recent years have you heard conscientious, politically savvy friends complain that they don't like either of the two candidates from whom they must choose in the voting booth? Some of that is disappointed perfectionism. Some represents a failure to credit the Darwinian screening process represented by the election primary system. But the case can be made that we've lost the ability to select the best person for this enormously demanding job. Would either political party today adopt an Eisenhower, except as a VP candidate?
Colin Powell obviously provides the best test of that question. War hero. Party affiliation unknown. Lots of common sense. Precise thinker with enough Machiavellian vagueness when necessary. If he and Bill Bradley were to join forces (and win backing from Ross Perot), they might, just might, upset the long history of independent third-party failure.
Almost all of the reams of media coverage of Powell has concentrated on "will he?" and "could he make it?'' Those are obvious questions. A more serious one is how could Powell (or Powell-Bradley) govern with no party ties to either side in Congress?
There's the rub. They'd be arguably the best, most thoughtful leaders for a country crying for honest leadership. Perhaps commanding initial respect in the legislative branch. But in the end commanding nothing but a bully pulpit. We've had gridlock from putting the presidency and Congress in opposite party hands. We now have a president sometimes barely able to exercise any discipline over his own party. But a president with NO party!
This suggests that Messrs. Powell, Bradley, and Perot face these hard choices:
*Wait until the year 2000 and risk becoming shopworn.
*Play coy, keep media attention, and hope to have a platform for selling their ideas to the public - and to whichever existing party candidate wins.
*Run party-less, and if they win, risk being frustrated by covert or open opposition on the Hill for four years.
* Cobble together a new party, perhaps incorporating Perot's United We Stand and the Concord Coalition (created by Bradley's Senate forerunners, Democrat Paul Tsongas and Republican Warren Rudman)
The last course is the politically intriguing one. It could become a variant on the 19th century replacement of the Whig label by the Republican label. But it's a difficult course. The clock stands near 11:59 in terms of state primary deadlines. And getting third-party congressional candidates on ballots next year would require a staggering organizational effort. For General Powell, it's the equivalent of crossing the Rubicon. For Senator Bradley, the equivalent of a Michael Jordan 60-point game.
Leaders, of the kind Americans are searching for, make such moves.