Is there a third party in our future?

In a column we published Tuesday, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times predicted a serious third-party challenge for president in 2012 barring a transformation of the Democratic and Republican parties. He didn’t sound optimistic about overcoming the vested interests represented by the two parties.

Today, our editorial board met with Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, who also broached the prospect of a third party rising from the middle of the political spectrum when she was asked about the rising volume of partisan rancor in Washington and across the country. “I’ve never said this publicly before,” she said, hesitating briefly before going on. “I believe we’re going to have three parties eventually. It’s going to be progressives, moderates and conservatives. Then, we might get some people working together.”

The biggest failing of the existing minor parties – Libertarians, Peace and Freedom, Green and so on – is that they exist on the fringe of the political system. That’s no antidote if you think the major parties are more committed to scoring political points than solving problems. A primary source of the partisan discord in Sacramento and Washington is the growing dominance of the fringe elements of the major parties. Congress and the Legislature are filled with the most conservative conservatives and the most liberal liberals. Some of them are closer to the Libertarians and Greens than they are to the vast middle of the political spectrum.

Woosley underscored the point when we asked her about the near certainty that the Democrats will suffer big losses in the November election. She said most of the losers in the House will be the center-left Democrats representing districts that lean Republican. She predicted a small, but more liberal Democratic majority in the next Congress, with a larger, more conservative Republican minority. It doesn’t sound like a lot of middle ground there.

The strength of the tea party movement is that it has tapped into real voters; it’s not an ersatz movement created by political consultants and P.R. experts. Its weakness is that many, if not most, of its adherents are well to the right of mainstream voters. Ross Perot rose up in 1992 because he resonated with moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans who were tired of Washington’s political wars without end. Perot fell just as fast when voters realized he wasn’t part of the mainstream. By 1996, his campaign was just another joke for late-night TV.

I don’t know if a third-party will rise as fast as Friedman predicts, but I think he and Woolsey are both right that there is an opportunity.

What do you think?

— Jim Sweeney