Humbug to independent candidates

We’re now in the Christmas season, which means there are fewer hard-news stories and more fantasizing about a political system that would fit the finale of It’s a Wonderful Life. Today, NBC News’ First Read blog invites us to rekindle our imaginations from childhood, when we were intrigued by the political leaders on television but didn’t yet know what Democrats and Republicans were. The bold type is mine:

Today, there’s a VERY frustrated American public that’s disillusioned with the president, angry at an ineffective Congress, turned off by a seemingly intolerant Republican Party that’s unwilling to govern, and fed up with a Democratic Party that’s had difficulty governing. There’s a crisis in confidence and competence that’s hurting everyone, and that requires some serious soul-searching by Washington’s politicians and both major parties. Yes, perhaps President Obama’s low approval ratings enable the GOP to win back the Senate. And yes, perhaps the public’s dissatisfaction with the GOP—as well as the country’s changing demographics—make Democrats the front-runners to hold the White House in 2016. But something larger is going on here, which could upend everything and produce unintended consequences. If there were serious independent candidates running for the House and Senate in 2014, they would get serious looks; interestingly, though, very few legitimate indie candidates have popped up yet. But don’t be surprised if by the spring of 2014, there are a slew of semi-serious indie candidates in enough places to wreak some havoc.

They could produce unintended consequences!

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My Christmas wish to you is that you live long enough to read 10,000 predictions that independent candidates will sweep American elections. It’s a ridiculous premise, not only because American voters (except in Maine) are so reluctant to throw votes away on third candidates in winner-take-all elections. The challenges to an independent candidate—signature requirements to get on the ballot, media coverage, inclusion in debates, getting national fundraising groups like the NRA and Emily’s List to notice you—are so daunting that it’s almost always easier to get elected by running in a major party’s primary. In all but a few states (where parties control nominations through conventions), a “legitimate indie” candidate can crash a Democratic or Republican primary and win as an outsider or a centrist.

Admittedly, this happens less often than it used to. We don’t have Democrats in Name Only (DINOs) like David Boren of Oklahoma or RINOs like Lowell Weicker of Connecticut in the Senate now, possibly because it’s harder for such candidates to raise money in a more polarized atmosphere (among people who work for and donate to campaigns, if not among the electorate as a whole). But any movement to elect more members of Congress with independent personalities is still going to have more promise if it recruits candidates to run in primaries, as opposed to creating one-person political parties all over the United States. In many cases, there are long odds against such a candidate winning a partisan primary, but if he or she can’t turn out the vote in a primary (even if it means registering new voters), it’s hard to believe that the person can build a winning coalition from scratch in a matter of months. And very few voters go for candidates who can’t win, despite what they tell pollsters a year before an election.

Four people have been elected to the Senate as independents in the past decades, and all caucused with a major party in Washington, as opposed to “wreaking some havoc,” as First Read put it. (They are Democrats Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Angus King of Maine, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—and Lieberman and Murkowski only ran as independents after losing their parties’ primaries.) All of them revealed their partisan leanings before getting elected. Voters don’t like enigmas.

Not coincidentally (remember that December is for The Nutcracker and banal political musings), the Boston Globe recently ran a feature on the No Labels movement, which now includes 87 members of Congress standing behind the slogan “Stop Fighting. Start Fixing.” Reporter Tracy Jan summarizes their small-bore goals

[…] a nine-point plan to make government work with legislation centered around seemingly modest fixes such as moving to a two-year budgeting cycle, withholding congressional pay if lawmakers fail to pass a budget, and curbing agency travel expenses by replacing meetings with video conferencing.

The only bill that has advanced so far is a weakened version of “No Budget, No Pay.” The bill, which President Obama signed in February, directed each chamber to adopt a budget for fiscal 2014 but did not require a budget conference. Members’ pay would be held in escrow if their chamber did not pass a budget, instead of being docked permanently, as the No Labels group originally proposed.

Docking congressional pay is a gimmick you adopt if you’re running in a competitive district, not if you’re trying to create some kind of new centrist coalition. Seth Masket calls No Labels membership “a signaling device” that suggests “a commitment to bipartisanship without having to actually do anything bipartisan.”

There are only two realistic ways to make Congress, and Washington, more “effective.” One is to hand control of the White House and both houses of Congress to the same party (which most voters want to do, even if they disagree on the party). The other is for members of Congress to cross party lines in the interest of getting things done. Independents running quixotic campaigns for Congress are not going to “upend” 2014, and the candy-cane notion will disappear when the new year begins and there’s new drama in Washington to write about.

Image from World Santa Congress, held each July in Denmark.

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