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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Crisp: Middle ground no longer exists

By John M. Crisp
Published: July 25, 2023, 6:01am

Who would be hurt most by a third-party presidential campaign by the No Labels movement, President Joe Biden or former President Donald Trump? It’s hard to say.

No Labels presents itself as a party of the middle ground between the “extremist Far Right and Far Left political tribes,” a refuge for the “exhausted majority” that wants “bipartisan solutions” for America.

No Labels has been coy about whether it plans to actually mount a presidential ticket, but at present the most prominent possibility is some combination of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., one for president, the other for vice president.

Hardcore Trump supporters won’t be tempted by either the dependably Republican Huntsman or by the unreliable Democrat Manchin, but the significant segment of conservatives who don’t like Biden and have grown weary of Trump might be.

But Democrats have reason to worry, as well; They’ve been burned by third parties before. The most oft-cited example is the election of 2000, when George W. Bush won Florida by 534 votes and thus the presidency, while third-party candidate Ralph Nader received over 97,000 Florida votes, most of which, arguably, would have gone to Al Gore.

Water under the bridge, unfortunately.

Here’s why I prefer our two-party system. At best, third parties complicate something that is essentially simple.

The political history of the United States can be described as a tug-of-war between two sides that disagree about the size and power of government. Conservatives prefer a limited central government, liberals want a larger, more active government.

All other issues — abortion, gun control, climate, welfare — are best understood in this context, which suggests the futility of mounting a third-party bid based on a single issue.

In this conception, conservatives have an inherent advantage: Republicans run on small government, low taxes and less regulation; no Democrat can run on slogans touting “Big Government!,” “High Taxes!” and “More Regulation!” But real politics is the art of finding the middle ground and making it work for the good of the nation.

Or at least it was. You’ll recognize that the framework of American politics that I’ve suggested is oversimplified or, at best, outdated. Both parties have a problem with deficit spending, and while Republicans accuse Democrats of wanting big government, how much bigger can a government be than the one that is determined to take charge of women’s bodies, of the private lives of LGBTQ+ citizens and of the content of the curriculum in public universities?

But here’s the real problem: In the Trump era the imagined middle ground that parties such as No Labels aspire to occupy has shrunk to the point of nonexistence.

On one side is a traditional left-of-center political pole represented by the Biden administration. By definition, it has a left-wing fringe, but to call the Democratic Party socialist or communist is an absurd, politically driven mischaracterization. The Biden administration represents the current left wing’s version of traditional, business-as-usual American politics.

On the other side is mostly one man, Trump. Traditional right-of-center Republicans are the fringe of the party. Trump still contends — and contrary to the evidence, much of his party agrees — that he won the last election, and he’s been credibly accused of conspiring with others to stay in power.

Should he be reelected, his policies with regard to most issues are vague, with two exceptions: He has been clear that he will commandeer as much power in the executive branch as possible and that he will impose “retribution” on his enemies.

In short, a rematch between Biden and Trump in 2024 will not be a traditional American contest between the left and the right. There is no comfortable middle ground for complacent third parties or independents. Democracy is at stake. Imagining otherwise imperils the nation.