How a Third Party President Could Successfully Govern

A thought experiment that contains lessons about the power of the presidency to act, even without congressional support

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In The Washington Examiner, Philip Klein reacts to the perennial yearning for third party presidential candidate by arguing that even if one were elected against all odds, "it would be nearly impossible for that person to get anything accomplished as president." The reason, Klein writes, is that "the most effective tool that a president has to get his agenda through Congress is to appeal to the loyalty of members of his own party, in part because their political fortunes are tied together. Maybe, in cases where an independent president is immensely popular, or the legislation he's pushing has overwhelming public support, he'd be able to get some minor things passed. But on the biggest and most controversial issues of the day, such as reforming entitlements, reining in spending, reforming the tax code, and addressing health care inflation, it's hard to see many lawmakers taking tough votes for a third-party president."

Although I agree that it's very unlikely for a third party candidate to get elected, at least in the upcoming cycle, I see no reason why he or she couldn't accomplish plenty upon arriving in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day. Let me put it this way. Imagine a president who proved particularly adept at cutting waste from the bureaucracy while improving the performance of its various departments; who vetoed the most imprudent bills that the Congress passed, and signed the most carefully crafted, necessary legislation; who proved a competent steward of foreign policy, a talented diplomat, and an adept negotiator of advantageous treaties with other nations; and whose appointees to the federal bench had above average intellect, wisdom, and integrity.

Would that president have accomplished anything, even if his or her White House failed to draft, steward, and sign major legislation on the tax code, health-care inflation, spending, or entitlements? I'd say so. Given the opportunity, I'd elect a leader like that in a second. I trust that a majority of Americans would do the same. And that many of the Founders, who designed our system of government without the presumption of two party rule, would heartily endorse my hypothetical candidate, especially were he running against the purveyors of faction in dread political parties. To make the same point with a historical counter-factual, imagine that you could go back to the year 2000, and replace George W. Bush with either Michael Bloomberg or Colin Powell running as an independent. How many of you think that given those three options the country would've been best served by going through the ensuing 8 years with Bush-Cheney in the White House? Does it matter to you that there'd be no Medicare Part D or No Child Left Behind?

Implicit in Klein's argument is the notion that America's problems cannot be solved without the president functioning as agenda setter and legislator in chief -- and that personally branded landmark legislation is the main determinant of whether a president has accomplished anything. But Congress is perfectly capable of passing bills on matters of controversy, and a third party president would be perfectly capable of signing them while attending to other functions of the executive branch. And even on legislative matters, he or she could form alliances of convenience, or a permanent alliance with one party or the other. Or focus on incremental, uncontroversial legislation rather than contentious landmark legislation.

Given that Republican and Democratic presidents have before proved incapable of accomplishing landmark reform on many of the most controversial issues, it seems unwarranted to presume that a third party candidate would perform worse on that metric. There is also the question of how presidents ought to be spending their time. Compared to George Washington or Abraham Lincoln or Herbert Hoover, Barack Obama has much less time for contemplation, many more geopolitical events to ponder, a much larger bureaucracy to manage, many more citizens to represent, a much bigger, more complicated military to oversee -- in all sorts of ways, the job of president has expanded, but the politically accountable man at the top is still just one. Perhaps we'd be better off as a nation if that person weren't expected to spend a significant amount of his time doing Congress' job, even if he or she is a Democrat or Republican, which will be the case for the foreseeable future. And maybe strengthening Congress as an institution, and addressing its most destructive pathologies, is as important to the future of America as electing the right president, even if it seems like a more daunting task.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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