Fantasy-League Politics

In mid-January, former Rep. Harold Ford, a conservative Democrat from Tennessee who in 2006 almost became the first African American elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction, made it known that he might want to try again. This time he would run from New York, where he moved a year ago for several seemingly lucrative part-time jobs.

Ford's campaign debuted with an inauspicious interview with The New York Times. He hit appointed incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand from the left, right, and center; he was simultaneously in favor of health reform and against it; pro-choice and pro-life; and for and against gun control. He was uncertain whether a helicopter tour qualified him as having visited all five boroughs of his new city. His only unwavering commitments were to a "huge tax-cut bill for business" and to being completely independent of party: "Harry Reid will not instruct me how to vote."

By the time you read this, the 39-year-old Ford will either be a serious candidate for the Senate seat (with his eye on the White House) or a footnote in New York's long history of oddball and carpetbagger campaigns. But more interesting than Ford himself are the characters egging him on: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, pollster Douglas Schoen, and Joe Trippi, the Internet-politics whiz who ran Howard Dean's and John Edwards' presidential campaigns. These men and others represent a kind of perpetual, recurring dream in American politics that some sort of Brand X candidate or third party, transcending all known partisan divides, will emerge. Ford was merely the latest vessel for this fantasy.

Schoen, long a partner of Hillary Clinton campaign strategist Mark Penn, predicts the rise of such a candidate or party in his book Declaring Independence, whose publication on Feb. 5, 2008, was overshadowed by the news that Barack Obama won 13 primaries on his way to the Democratic nomination. Trippi has predicted that the magic of the Internet will create an entirely new politics. Bloomberg flirted with a presidential run, briefly teaming up with former Sen. David Boren of Oklahoma, who in turn was associated with Unity08, an effort by various retired politicians and consultants to create a new party defined largely by what it was not.

Similar projects litter the past. In the third year of the Clinton presidency, a handful of quirky politicians schemed over which one of them might run in 1996 as an independent, an effort that blew up when one of them leaked it to the press. John McCain undoubtedly wanted to team up with Joe Lieberman for a bipartisan dream team in 2008 until his handlers decided Sarah Palin was a better running mate.

The trans-partisan fantasy campaigns tend to have three things in common.

First, the confusion and contradictions exhibited by Ford are no accident. The independence movement melds populism of both the left and right varieties (see Lou Dobbs, author of the 2007 book Independents Day), centrism, and technocratic anti-politics into one messy soup. Concern about long-term budget deficits and slipping U.S. economic superiority, plus tax cuts, are usually mainstays of the movement's vague platforms. The mere idea of being somehow different from whatever is on offer in current politics seems to be "unity" enough. Independents share not a vision of where to take the country but an analysis of its politics.

Second, most of the people involved in these efforts aren't independent at all but deeply embedded in the political system as candidates or consultants. (McCain and Lieberman are lifelong politicians; among Ford's several titles is chair of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.) They never suffer for lack of funds. And the most gullible audience for their efforts consists of the most practiced purveyors of conventional wisdom, like Washington Post columnist David Broder, who swooned over Unity08. Often it seems like the independents' primary complaint about the state of American politics is simply that they're not the ones running it.

But the independents never have to face up to these contradictions because of the third fact about these efforts -- they almost never amount to anything. Bloomberg, who's spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars of his fortune on his three campaigns, is the exception, but even after almost a decade, he hasn't been able to extend his technocratic project beyond the city or into the future. Because the independence projects fade so fast, the idea never quite goes away. It's always available as an imaginary alternative to the actual political choices before us.

As the intense battles over direction of the country in the Obama era heat up, expect more of these well-financed gestures toward yet another independent alternative. Make no mistake -- they are not a path to new politics but consistently a reinforcement of the old.

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