Thinking about third parties

When Ronald Reagan lost the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, some supporters wanted him to run as a conservative third-party candidate. His current embrace by the Republicans seems to confirm the wisdom of his refusal to play a splintering role back then. Now John Anderson is considering the possibilities of a third-party bid if he fails as a Republican. The difference is that an Anderson third party, to judge by the Anderson primary record, would reach out to a broader political spectrum than the right-wing band that called to Reagan four years ago.

At the moment this is all being discussed in the kind of racetrack handicapping terms typical of this long-drawn-out political season. If Anderson comes up on the outside in November, would he take more from the Democratic or the Republican candidate? If he stays in the paddock, to whom would most of his supporters turn? If he does want to run as a third-party candidate, can he wait much longer without sacrificing too many states?

Any speculation is chancy in view of the volatility of the campaign so far. Yet the third-party stirrings draw attention to the American tradition of parties rising to challenge the established ones -- and often to make national contributions out of proportion to their political success. Indeed, it was third parties that first advocated such political reforms as the primaries and national nominating conventions themselves. Until 1830, when the Anti-Masonic Party held an interstate convention to nominate presidential and vice-presidential candidates, national tickets had been put together by such means as caucuses which the new party's leaders considered less democratic.

Third parties also pioneered in the fights against slavery and for women's suffrage. Almost a century ago the Equal Rights Party actually nominated women for president and vice-president, something the major parties have still not caught up with. In that same 1884 election, Mugwumps splitting from the Republicans over the nomination of James Blaine helped elect the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland.

To be realistic, an Anderson third-party candidacy in 1980 would be less likely to elect him than to damage one or the other major party candidate, fuzzing an outcome which would be the better for the country the more clear-cut it is. Then Anderson could wind up in the history books with the single-taxers and silverites as the 50-cent-gas-taxer. After disclaiming any intention of third-party candidacy, he now says he expects to decide within a month which way to go.

We confess to a preference for seeing Anderson continue to represent, win or lose, a moderating influence within the Republican Party, which needs this kind of influence if it is to broaden its base sufficiently to hold up its end of the two-party system. From Anderson's own point of view, whatever the results this year, he would not have burned his bridges should he want to try again in 1984.

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