Conservative Third-Party Dreams and Realities

Tea Partiers and other constitutionally minded Americans for whom "Anyone but Obama" rings hollow, and who still harbor hopes of a third-party challenge to the GOP establishment, may find food for thought in a living example of such a conservative challenge -- namely, that which arose in Canada a quarter-century ago.  Americans would benefit from a careful evaluation of their neighbors' success.

For decades, Canadian conservatives fought the same uphill battle as their U.S. counterparts, though lacking the constitutional armor with which to defend themselves.  The nation moved continually to the left, and at the federal level, electoral politics was dominated by the increasingly socialistic Liberal Party.  The cultural and ideological domination was so complete that the supposedly right-leaning party, the apologetically named Progressive Conservative Party (PC), fell largely under the sway of its "moderate" wing, epitomized by its long-serving leader, Joe Clark, who, for the sake of clarity, might be described as three steps to the left of Olympia Snowe.

In 1984, frustrated by the economic fallout of two decades of almost continuous Liberal policy, and envious of the burgeoning success of the Reagan Revolution, Canadians elected the PCs, led by Brian Mulroney, to a majority government.  Mulroney, though more conservative than Clark, was very much an establishment man.  He played well in the big cities of the east and in Quebec, traditional Liberal strongholds.  He was, however, strictly a light-touch fiscal conservative, and he was not at all prepared to address Canada's suffocating entitlement programs, its economically and morally disastrous "universal" health care system, and the rest of the leftist load that had tipped Canada's scales decisively to the side of incipient socialism.

While conservatives in the eastern and central provinces remained satisfied to let the Liberals and PCs play out their little family feud, those in the western provinces, particularly Alberta, were feeling left out of the process.  They held their noses and voted PC repeatedly, but they were becoming increasingly resentful of the predictability of this routine.  (Sound familiar?)

In 1987, a faction of conservative westerners established the Reform Party.  Initially, Reform ran federal candidates only regionally, but, thanks in large part to the charismatic combination of forthrightness and principled intelligence embodied in the party's founder and leader, Preston Manning (whose father had previously been a "third party" premier of Alberta), they quickly began to gain a national voice.  In 1993, they won more federal seats than their arch-rival PCs, and finished second in the national popular vote. 

However, all but one of the Reform seats were won in the west.  There were no great breakthrough victories in the most populous provinces, Ontario and Quebec, nor on the east coast.  Particularly notable is the fact that Reform had substantial popular support in rural Ontario, but this support did not translate into parliamentary seats due to the splitting of the conservative vote between Reform and the fading PCs.

The 1997 election produced virtually the same result: a Liberal majority government, with Reform winning seats in its western enclave, while suffering from vote-splitting in the rest of the country.  Principled conservatism had definitely turned a corner, but it remained very much a regional faction electorally, with minority status nationally.

Facing these harsh realities, in 2000, the Reform Party sought to "unite the right" by forming an alliance with the PCs.  The federal PCs (led again by the hapless Clark) rejected the union, although many of the party's members broke ranks and joined the new "Canadian Alliance." 

At last, in 2003, the Reform/Alliance and the PCs formally joined forces as the renamed Conservative Party, with former Reform/Alliance Party representatives, including new party leader Stephen Harper, dominating its ranks.  Harper, though a substantial move to the right of the old PCs, personified the compromised conservatism required to convince the PC Party to accept the merger.  Less principled than Manning, but for that reason more adaptable to the established machinery of federal politics, Harper has led the Conservative Party to three consecutive election victories, finally securing a majority government in 2011.

Harper's Conservatives have lowered some taxes, maintained a more business-friendly environment, resisted some of the more extreme "green" economy gobbledegook in favor of promoting Canada as a major oil-producer, guided the country steadily through the 2008 recession, and adopted a somewhat more robust -- i.e., less U.N.-centered -- foreign policy. 

In order to achieve this, however, the party has had to jettison most of the social conservative issues, allow Canada's socialized health care system to stand fundamentally unquestioned, step lightly around the nation's leftist federal agencies, and in general do far less than conservative voters would have hoped to dismantle the country's statist engine.

No analogy is perfect, and there are always skeptics prepared to attack even the best analogy by focusing on the inevitable dissimilarities between the key analogs.  (If the terms were in no way dissimilar, they would simply be identical; analogy presupposes differences.)  Nevertheless, if we focus on the significant areas of similarity, there are some sobering considerations to be drawn from the Canadian conservative Petri dish.

1. In order for a third party to do more than disastrously split the nominally "conservative" vote, it must earn a voice in national elective office.  In other words, (a) merely running a presidential candidate is ineffectual, unless the goal were precisely to help Obama win re-election, and (b) merely having a name on the ballot in a hundred congressional districts, like the Libertarians, provides little more than a soundproof room for the disaffected to vent their anger.

Rather than constitutionalists subsisting as a diluted faction, spread throughout America in minority proportions -- and Tea Partiers are hiding from reality if they imagine their proportions to be greater than that at this point -- the best hope would be for a narrower, more regional party, with serious and "connected" local leadership, to build critical mass in a particular state, and thus have a chance to win a few congressional seats.  This would give the movement instant federal clout, and more than merely a "protest" voice on the national stage.

(Lest Tea Partiers argue that the 2010 election proved that they can already elect their own, keep in mind that even the best constitutionalists elected in 2010 ran on a GOP ticket, and therefore earned a large percentage of their votes from middle-of-the-road Republicans who would not vote for a Tea Party candidate as such.)

2. Even with electoral strength regionally, nationwide success for a third party is a multi-election project.  The question conservatives would have to ask themselves is, "How many election cycles can America survive while waiting for the new constitutionalist party to gain enough steam to wrest number one conservative party status away from the GOP?"

Could a third party, with the right leadership, do an end-run around this time constraint by attracting some of the recently elected Tea Party-favored congressmen and senators to switch party affiliations?  Consider that the GOP is a much stronger, richer, and more seductive establishment machine than Canada's dilapidated PCs were ten years ago.  Those who have been elected to serve within that machine are unlikely to give up the hard-won advantages they have gained in favor of a "turncoat" label, along with an assault from the establishment that would make the GOP attacks on Santorum, Bachmann, Palin, et al. look like warm hugs by comparison.  "Perhaps Ron Paul would join," you say?  That would only ensure that other elected Republicans (or at least all but one) stay away.

3. While initial regional strength would be the most likely path to electoral success, it would also become an albatross around the new party's neck throughout the rest of the nation.  The party would continually be struggling to convince people that they really did represent national interests.

True, the constitutional emphasis, which Canada's Reform Party did not have (Canada's constitution was part of what they were implicitly fighting against), would have national appeal.  But they would still be faced with persuading tens of millions of hitherto unconvinced Americans that (a) the Constitution really is the central issue of the moment, and (b) the new party would represent this issue more effectively than the long-established GOP, "the party of Reagan and Lincoln," as the establishment's defenders would claim.

4. Even if this third party managed to become the preference of a majority of "conservative" voters, the GOP, as the older party, would be unlikely simply to cede the floor.  Come election time, then, the conservative alternative to the Democrats would be at war with itself, with the GOP holding enough of its base of lifelong, card-carrying Republicans -- along with many moderate independents (who will, in this scenario, see the GOP as the comfortable "middle" party) -- to guarantee a vote-split that helps the Democrats.  

Once again, how many elections are you willing to concede to the Democrats in order to effect the tidal shift that might eventually bring victory to a third party?

5. Finally, in order to overcome the vote-splitting impasse, some sort of formal merger of the old and new conservative parties would become necessary.  Perhaps, after a few election cycles, this merger would favor the newer, more constitutionally focused faction.  Nevertheless, in order to secure the acquiescence of the GOP leadership (and its significant band of supporters), some compromises would likely be necessary in the new "Conservative Party" platform.

So while, in the end, the completed project might be more conservative in orientation than today's GOP leadership, it would probably be a more pragmatic, less principled force than third-party advocates would like.

Needless to say, things could work out better than I have described for the constitutionalist faction.  However, it is difficult to see how even a perfectly principled conservative third party, answering precisely to the purest wishes of the most committed Tea Party voter, could become a winning national party quickly enough to prevent the Democrats from benefiting from the battle in the short run. 

And today, the short run may simply be too long to wait.  National bankruptcy, the nullification of the Constitution through executive fiat and judicial precedent, the socialization of health care, and the further expansion of the morally draining entitlement culture -- America is at the tipping point of irreversible decline.  Wasn't it precisely the recognition of this fact that gave breath to the Tea Party in the first place, and that led to the conservative resurgence of 2010?

The case for a third party -- a serious third party, not a sugar-coated way of abdicating one's responsibility to the future -- may have been stronger twenty years ago, when there was still time to do the long, arduous groundwork.  Perhaps, had this been undertaken then, we would have seen the collapse of the GOP into a united "Conservative Party" fold by now.  But it was not undertaken then.  And now, seemingly, it is too late.  Without a united opposition today, there may not be an America in twenty years, at least not in a form that anyone who cares about America's political heritage would recognize. 

It seems that the lesson to be learned from Canada's example is that the third-party option is not feasible in the U.S. under present circumstances.  American constitutionalists must take another, more difficult route: produce a new conservative party from within the old. 

There are risks inherent in this approach, the biggest of which is a tendency toward complacency when one is winning elections.  The upside of this method, however, is the increased chance of short-term electoral success.  True, this success will initially issue in something as frustrating as the compromised conservatism that has won the day in Canada.  But who wouldn't take Stephen Harper over Barack Obama today, while reserving the right to press for -- to demand -- greater infusions of principle tomorrow? 

Of course, if the Democrats win this time around, all bets are off -- but that's a bridge conservatives should be hoping they never come to.

Tea Partiers and other constitutionally minded Americans for whom "Anyone but Obama" rings hollow, and who still harbor hopes of a third-party challenge to the GOP establishment, may find food for thought in a living example of such a conservative challenge -- namely, that which arose in Canada a quarter-century ago.  Americans would benefit from a careful evaluation of their neighbors' success.

For decades, Canadian conservatives fought the same uphill battle as their U.S. counterparts, though lacking the constitutional armor with which to defend themselves.  The nation moved continually to the left, and at the federal level, electoral politics was dominated by the increasingly socialistic Liberal Party.  The cultural and ideological domination was so complete that the supposedly right-leaning party, the apologetically named Progressive Conservative Party (PC), fell largely under the sway of its "moderate" wing, epitomized by its long-serving leader, Joe Clark, who, for the sake of clarity, might be described as three steps to the left of Olympia Snowe.

In 1984, frustrated by the economic fallout of two decades of almost continuous Liberal policy, and envious of the burgeoning success of the Reagan Revolution, Canadians elected the PCs, led by Brian Mulroney, to a majority government.  Mulroney, though more conservative than Clark, was very much an establishment man.  He played well in the big cities of the east and in Quebec, traditional Liberal strongholds.  He was, however, strictly a light-touch fiscal conservative, and he was not at all prepared to address Canada's suffocating entitlement programs, its economically and morally disastrous "universal" health care system, and the rest of the leftist load that had tipped Canada's scales decisively to the side of incipient socialism.

While conservatives in the eastern and central provinces remained satisfied to let the Liberals and PCs play out their little family feud, those in the western provinces, particularly Alberta, were feeling left out of the process.  They held their noses and voted PC repeatedly, but they were becoming increasingly resentful of the predictability of this routine.  (Sound familiar?)

In 1987, a faction of conservative westerners established the Reform Party.  Initially, Reform ran federal candidates only regionally, but, thanks in large part to the charismatic combination of forthrightness and principled intelligence embodied in the party's founder and leader, Preston Manning (whose father had previously been a "third party" premier of Alberta), they quickly began to gain a national voice.  In 1993, they won more federal seats than their arch-rival PCs, and finished second in the national popular vote. 

However, all but one of the Reform seats were won in the west.  There were no great breakthrough victories in the most populous provinces, Ontario and Quebec, nor on the east coast.  Particularly notable is the fact that Reform had substantial popular support in rural Ontario, but this support did not translate into parliamentary seats due to the splitting of the conservative vote between Reform and the fading PCs.

The 1997 election produced virtually the same result: a Liberal majority government, with Reform winning seats in its western enclave, while suffering from vote-splitting in the rest of the country.  Principled conservatism had definitely turned a corner, but it remained very much a regional faction electorally, with minority status nationally.

Facing these harsh realities, in 2000, the Reform Party sought to "unite the right" by forming an alliance with the PCs.  The federal PCs (led again by the hapless Clark) rejected the union, although many of the party's members broke ranks and joined the new "Canadian Alliance." 

At last, in 2003, the Reform/Alliance and the PCs formally joined forces as the renamed Conservative Party, with former Reform/Alliance Party representatives, including new party leader Stephen Harper, dominating its ranks.  Harper, though a substantial move to the right of the old PCs, personified the compromised conservatism required to convince the PC Party to accept the merger.  Less principled than Manning, but for that reason more adaptable to the established machinery of federal politics, Harper has led the Conservative Party to three consecutive election victories, finally securing a majority government in 2011.

Harper's Conservatives have lowered some taxes, maintained a more business-friendly environment, resisted some of the more extreme "green" economy gobbledegook in favor of promoting Canada as a major oil-producer, guided the country steadily through the 2008 recession, and adopted a somewhat more robust -- i.e., less U.N.-centered -- foreign policy. 

In order to achieve this, however, the party has had to jettison most of the social conservative issues, allow Canada's socialized health care system to stand fundamentally unquestioned, step lightly around the nation's leftist federal agencies, and in general do far less than conservative voters would have hoped to dismantle the country's statist engine.

No analogy is perfect, and there are always skeptics prepared to attack even the best analogy by focusing on the inevitable dissimilarities between the key analogs.  (If the terms were in no way dissimilar, they would simply be identical; analogy presupposes differences.)  Nevertheless, if we focus on the significant areas of similarity, there are some sobering considerations to be drawn from the Canadian conservative Petri dish.

1. In order for a third party to do more than disastrously split the nominally "conservative" vote, it must earn a voice in national elective office.  In other words, (a) merely running a presidential candidate is ineffectual, unless the goal were precisely to help Obama win re-election, and (b) merely having a name on the ballot in a hundred congressional districts, like the Libertarians, provides little more than a soundproof room for the disaffected to vent their anger.

Rather than constitutionalists subsisting as a diluted faction, spread throughout America in minority proportions -- and Tea Partiers are hiding from reality if they imagine their proportions to be greater than that at this point -- the best hope would be for a narrower, more regional party, with serious and "connected" local leadership, to build critical mass in a particular state, and thus have a chance to win a few congressional seats.  This would give the movement instant federal clout, and more than merely a "protest" voice on the national stage.

(Lest Tea Partiers argue that the 2010 election proved that they can already elect their own, keep in mind that even the best constitutionalists elected in 2010 ran on a GOP ticket, and therefore earned a large percentage of their votes from middle-of-the-road Republicans who would not vote for a Tea Party candidate as such.)

2. Even with electoral strength regionally, nationwide success for a third party is a multi-election project.  The question conservatives would have to ask themselves is, "How many election cycles can America survive while waiting for the new constitutionalist party to gain enough steam to wrest number one conservative party status away from the GOP?"

Could a third party, with the right leadership, do an end-run around this time constraint by attracting some of the recently elected Tea Party-favored congressmen and senators to switch party affiliations?  Consider that the GOP is a much stronger, richer, and more seductive establishment machine than Canada's dilapidated PCs were ten years ago.  Those who have been elected to serve within that machine are unlikely to give up the hard-won advantages they have gained in favor of a "turncoat" label, along with an assault from the establishment that would make the GOP attacks on Santorum, Bachmann, Palin, et al. look like warm hugs by comparison.  "Perhaps Ron Paul would join," you say?  That would only ensure that other elected Republicans (or at least all but one) stay away.

3. While initial regional strength would be the most likely path to electoral success, it would also become an albatross around the new party's neck throughout the rest of the nation.  The party would continually be struggling to convince people that they really did represent national interests.

True, the constitutional emphasis, which Canada's Reform Party did not have (Canada's constitution was part of what they were implicitly fighting against), would have national appeal.  But they would still be faced with persuading tens of millions of hitherto unconvinced Americans that (a) the Constitution really is the central issue of the moment, and (b) the new party would represent this issue more effectively than the long-established GOP, "the party of Reagan and Lincoln," as the establishment's defenders would claim.

4. Even if this third party managed to become the preference of a majority of "conservative" voters, the GOP, as the older party, would be unlikely simply to cede the floor.  Come election time, then, the conservative alternative to the Democrats would be at war with itself, with the GOP holding enough of its base of lifelong, card-carrying Republicans -- along with many moderate independents (who will, in this scenario, see the GOP as the comfortable "middle" party) -- to guarantee a vote-split that helps the Democrats.  

Once again, how many elections are you willing to concede to the Democrats in order to effect the tidal shift that might eventually bring victory to a third party?

5. Finally, in order to overcome the vote-splitting impasse, some sort of formal merger of the old and new conservative parties would become necessary.  Perhaps, after a few election cycles, this merger would favor the newer, more constitutionally focused faction.  Nevertheless, in order to secure the acquiescence of the GOP leadership (and its significant band of supporters), some compromises would likely be necessary in the new "Conservative Party" platform.

So while, in the end, the completed project might be more conservative in orientation than today's GOP leadership, it would probably be a more pragmatic, less principled force than third-party advocates would like.

Needless to say, things could work out better than I have described for the constitutionalist faction.  However, it is difficult to see how even a perfectly principled conservative third party, answering precisely to the purest wishes of the most committed Tea Party voter, could become a winning national party quickly enough to prevent the Democrats from benefiting from the battle in the short run. 

And today, the short run may simply be too long to wait.  National bankruptcy, the nullification of the Constitution through executive fiat and judicial precedent, the socialization of health care, and the further expansion of the morally draining entitlement culture -- America is at the tipping point of irreversible decline.  Wasn't it precisely the recognition of this fact that gave breath to the Tea Party in the first place, and that led to the conservative resurgence of 2010?

The case for a third party -- a serious third party, not a sugar-coated way of abdicating one's responsibility to the future -- may have been stronger twenty years ago, when there was still time to do the long, arduous groundwork.  Perhaps, had this been undertaken then, we would have seen the collapse of the GOP into a united "Conservative Party" fold by now.  But it was not undertaken then.  And now, seemingly, it is too late.  Without a united opposition today, there may not be an America in twenty years, at least not in a form that anyone who cares about America's political heritage would recognize. 

It seems that the lesson to be learned from Canada's example is that the third-party option is not feasible in the U.S. under present circumstances.  American constitutionalists must take another, more difficult route: produce a new conservative party from within the old. 

There are risks inherent in this approach, the biggest of which is a tendency toward complacency when one is winning elections.  The upside of this method, however, is the increased chance of short-term electoral success.  True, this success will initially issue in something as frustrating as the compromised conservatism that has won the day in Canada.  But who wouldn't take Stephen Harper over Barack Obama today, while reserving the right to press for -- to demand -- greater infusions of principle tomorrow? 

Of course, if the Democrats win this time around, all bets are off -- but that's a bridge conservatives should be hoping they never come to.