Debunking the Myth of an Independent President

LA Times op-ed spotlights partisanship's place

Because it’s only a matter of time before another pundit delivers a half-baked column fantasizing about an independent presidential candidate, it was good to see the Los Angeles Times give some op-ed space to political scientists Seth Masket and Hans Noel to push back against the idea.

Masket and Noel—each of whom have been cited by CJR before—ably explain why an independent or third-party candidate has no hope of winning a presidential election under America’s voting system. But this section, about the difficulties an independent president would face in actually governing, is even more important:

Let’s say an independent were to be elected president; he would be a disaster. The president is not a dictator. If he wants to cut or raise taxes, rein in or expand entitlements, enhance or remove environmental regulations, or do just about anything else, he has to work with Congress. A president wishing to hire people for his senior staff and seeking to appoint Cabinet members and judges needs congressional approval. A president with no party ties has no automatic allies — each one of these decisions would require a fight with Congress and a cobbled-together coalition to pass the president’s priorities.

Without a party in his corner, the president would be in a constant struggle to perform even the most basic tasks of governing. Imagine if Obama had had no allies in Congress during the debt ceiling battle, instead of a majority of the Senate and a significant, organized minority in the House.

As it happens, there’s a nice illustration of what happens to a politician with no partisan allies in the latest Atlantic, which features Ben Wallace-Wells’s short, sad profile of Charlie Crist. Crist is the former governor of Florida who decided to run for Senate and then, despite solid overall approval ratings, found himself poised to lose the Republican primary to the more conservative Marco Rubio. So, he left the party to run as an independent.

It didn’t go well. Rubio cruised to victory in the general election, while Crist, with no political home, is now starring in local TV ads as a partner in a personal-injury law firm. Here’s the kicker:

“Politics,” [Crist’s former consultant Stuart] Stevens explained regretfully, “is shirts and skins.” And for now, Charlie Crist is a man without a team.

This sort of teamsmanship is off-putting to a lot of people, who quite understandably don’t care whether Charlie Crist lands in a comfortable, party-supported sinecure. And an entrenched partisan divide seems contrary to the idea that, through a little good will, sober analysis, and hard work, we can all agree to do the “right thing.” That’s why the fantasy of an independent president is a close relative to fantasies of bipartisan harmony. (Hey, look! It’s Tom Friedman’s latest column).

But the partisan split, while it may be fueled by “special interests” or politicians’ parochial concerns, is fundamentally the result of real disagreement about the role of government. As The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait noted yesterday, on this score conservative media outlets are often more sophisticated than mainstream ones, where a stance of political neutrality can become political naïveté.

And that naïveté is a disservice to readers—including, or especially, readers who are upset about the state of our politics, and who deserve to know that there are no quick fixes. Masket and Noel close with this sound advice:

If you’re not content with the way this country is being governed, one of the best ways to change it is to get involved with one of the existing parties and work to nominate and elect candidates at all levels of government who will fight for the things you care about. Odds are, one of the parties will want much of what you want. Pining for an independent, third-party dictator is not only a waste of your time, but if you somehow got what you wanted, you’d quickly find it wasn’t what you wanted at all.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.