Michael Kazin: Bloomberg Might Want to Think Hard About Running as an Independent

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University and is the author of many books including, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan.]

The historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote that third parties in the modern United States are like honeybees - they sting and then they die.

But not every candidate who runs for president outside the Demopublican oligopoly has left a significant mark on the body politic. Most, to paraphrase Muhammad Ali, floated like butterflies away from the main event and were soon forgotten.

As Michael Bloomberg prepares to enter the 2008 race as an independent, he might reflect on his forerunners whose historical impact was slight as well as those who, although they lost, did much to transform the political landscape.

The club of influential losers is ultra-exclusive. It includes Theodore Roosevelt, who finished second as a Progressive in 1912 and whose platform presaged that adopted by his distant cousin Franklin in the 1930s. George Wallace belongs in it too, thanks to his American Independent campaign in 1968 which showed conservatives how to run as moralizing populists. Wallace won five states and 46 electoral votes and almost deprived Richard Nixon of an electoral-college majority.

But other alternative candidates, even those who gained an impressive number of ballots, proved to be essentially ephemeral figures. In 1924, Robert LaFollette, running as a left reformer, won close to 17% of the vote but succeeded only in dividing the weak opposition to the Republican juggernaut.

Most of the 5.7 million votes independent John Anderson drew in 1980 would probably have gone to President Jimmy Carter. But Ronald Reagan would still have scored an easy victory that year, and Anderson's studied moderation was an empty vessel whose sinking few Americans regretted. For all the attention they received, neither of Ross Perot's well-publicized campaigns in the 1990s won a single electoral vote, and his eccentric personality overshadowed his advocacy of a balanced budget and curbs on free trade.

What did TR and Wallace have that their fellow also-rans lacked? Both were prominent, charismatic political figures before they launched their campaigns; each could depend on an army of loyal volunteers to carry his banner and echo his words, even after his electoral defeat.

In addition, both men spoke to widespread grievances - against corporate malfeasance in 1912, liberal hypocrisy and failure in 1968 - which neither major party was addressing in a forceful way. In both years, the prospect of a close election also stirred hope, or alarm, that the winner would have to broker a deal with the third-party nominee.

Michael Bloomberg's incipient candidacy may make the 2008 election a ferociously competitive one. But until quite recently, few Americans outside New York knew anything about the billionaire mayor, and he will thus have to recruit a legion of volunteers almost from scratch.

The Anderson example also suggests that the appeal of soft-spoken centrism may wither in the fury of partisan conflict. In the summer of 1980, the congressman's poll rating topped 20%. But as the campaign wore on and voters started really focusing on the choices before them, he had no idea how to stop millions of voters from "coming home" to the major parties.

When Carter refused to engage in a three-sided TV debate, Anderson could not call on the broad and ardent support necessary to force the incumbent to change his mind.

Michael Bloomberg has the money and brains to run a formidable campaign. There are certainly big causes he could embrace - fixing the nation's public schools, for example - that could gain the pragmatic, big-city mayor a sympathetic hearing. But vague talk about transcending partisan gridlock will grow stale very quickly. And if he can't recruit a passionate, grievance-filled following, he is unlikely to change history.

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