Christine Todd Whitman and Andrew Yang announced that they’re forming a new party called “Forward” on Thursday. Here on my thoughts on that.
Evan McMullin is running as an independent in the 2022 midterms against Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah. He says that, if elected, he won’t caucus with either party. If this were true, it would be truly stupid, leading to the same kind of ineffectualness Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene suffers after having been stripped of her committee assignments. After all, caucusing with a party is about choosing a Speaker of the House or Senate Majority Leader, but that’s done after the first day. Thereafter, it’s about serving on committees where most legislation is marked up and where the administration’s nominees are vetted. There are no seats on congressional committees reserved for independents or uncommitteds. If McMullin doesn’t commit to a party, he’ll have little to do and very little direct influence on the work of the Senate.
It’s possible that McMullin will actually win because the Democrats have endorsed him. That’s not actually helpful in conservative Utah, except that the Dems aren’t running their own candidate. Republicans are mindful that a vote for McMullin is more than a vote against Sen. Lee. It’s also a vote against Mitch McConnell becoming Majority Leader again, and that’s true even if McMullin abstains and refuses to endorse Schumer or another Democrat.
But what if the midterms produce another divided Senate where McMullin is the deciding vote that determines whether the Republicans or Democrats will be in control? In that case, he could give the Democrats the choice of making him the Leader or having him hand control to McConnell.
This is not a low odds scenario. The midterms could well produce another 50-50 split. The Republicans need 51 for a majority while Democrats only need 50 thanks to the tie-breaking role of Vice-President Kamala Harris. But if McMullin is the Democrat’s fiftieth vote, his abstention would give McConnell a 50-49 majority. With that amount leverage, McMullin could force himself to the top position, but he could also choose any other Democrat for the position. Maybe he prefers Kyrsten Sinema to Chuck Schumer?
The point is, this is how a true independent party would have to operate in Congress. For the foreseeable future, it would never have an outright majority, but its members could be majority-makers and insist that they serve in positions of authority as leaders and committee chairs. This is how coalitions are built in parliamentary systems and its awkward in our American system, but it can still be effective.
The best place to begin is in California where candidates can identify with any party they want and the top two finishers in the primaries face off against each other in the general election. A third party whose candidates pledge to vote only for one of their own on the first ballot for Speaker of the House or Senate Majority Leader could build up a small but sufficient bloc of elected officials to effectively control the leadership of Congress. They could demand leadership for themselves or insist on moderate Dem or GOP leaders. This would be much easier in the House, but the presently close split in the Senate makes it possible there, too.
For third party advocates who want centrist representation, this is the ideal way to strip the partisan venom out of Congress. If the goal is to have a center-left alternative to the Democrats, they’d find it much easier to compel the Democrats to govern from the middle than to supplant them as one of the two major parties. In other words, they would caucus with the Dems, but with conditions.
I believe progressives could pull the same trick by running candidates in California pledged to vote for one of their own on the first ballot for Speaker. If their bloc ever becomes decisive, they could determine who holds the gavel in the House.
Politics is organized around ideology but it’s really about power. And if you don’t like how power is split up in our system and want a third party alternative, you have to find a way that might give you power. Running as an independent or small-party candidate against entrenched Democrats and Republicans almost never works, and it leaves the rare winners with no way to have influence except to caucus with one of the major parties. It’s unrealistic to think that a third party will soon win a majority on its own, but if it figures out how to become a majority-maker, it can reach its objectives.