10/05/2005 01:42 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hillary's Third Party Problem ... and Mine

Hillary Clinton and like-minded Democrats believe a centrist approach based on “competence” will win in 2008. Many (including me) believe they’re wrong on purely tactical grounds. Now something else is developing in the zeitgeist: the idea of a new progressive third-party. That’s Hillary’s third-party problem, and here’s mine: as a progressive Democrat who has spent 40 years defending it against third parties, I may not be so inclined next time around. The Democratic Party is a tool for the higher good. If and when it ceases being that, it will no longer claim my loyalty.

First, a word on tactics: Evasiveness on Iraq and a few awkwardly-spoken Bible quotes will not be embraced by voters as a “new centrism.” Authenticity is a hallmark of leadership, and the insincerity with which centrist Democrats speak of Iraq is palpable. A simple declaration – “the war was wrong, but let’s move on and deal with it” – would do wonders, but the triangulators stubbornly refuse.

Now, the third party question: The idea of a progressive third-party, while not yet widely discussed, is in the air, as one sweep with Google’s new blog-searching tool will confirm. Look ahead, Democrats: Without the clear and present danger of Bush, a coherent set of ideals, and an honest and plain-spoken assessment on the war, you are losing your ability to inspire and lead. Presidential elections are a classic clash of personalities and therefore of narratives and visions. Democrats have yet to benefit from the weakness of Republicans in that kind of match-up.

I was always the guy in the crowd who defended the Democratic Party by saying “If it saves one child on welfare, one soldier or civilian in a war zone, or one forest, your conscience should tell you to vote Democratic.” The fundamental problems arise when Democrats not only compromise morally, but in so doing become so politically ineffectual that they are no longer the right vessels to save those children, soldiers, and civilians.

A more extended version of this post is available on A Night Light. It elaborates on the current Democratic strategy (“nothing is sadder than watching someone sell their soul when nobody’s buying”), the conditions under which I would consider supporting a third party, and what a third party I could support (I call it the “Reform Democratic Party”) would look like.

Am I calling for this third party? Not yet, but it’s an idea worth discussing. Should this suggestion create Democratic outrage? I don’t think so. Either Democratic dissidents like me won’t matter in 2008, because Hillary and the DLC are right - or between now and then the Democratic leadership will come looking for us as they watch their numbers fall.

If this prediction turns out to be true, though, don’t say we didn’t warn you: To me and others like me the Democratic Party is just a vehicle meant to take us to Higher Ground – the place where the hungry are fed and unjust wars are never supported. Naïve? I disagree. Believing you can win the American people without speaking the plain truth and standing up for what you believe? Now that’s what I call naïve.

A Night Light