U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) are both running for President as antagonists to the political establishment. Though the two candidates harbor irreconcilable differences on economic policies, the two find themselves simpatico on many issues. Strangely, political ideology is a circle, not a continuum -- left sometimes meets right.
The Libertarian-Right and the Progressive Left are at odds with the establishment candidates of their parties on a litany of issues. A recent poll showed that only 26 percent of Americans are satisfied with the two-party dominant political system.
Assuming nether Sanders nor Paul pockets their party's nomination, and that an establishment Republican and establishment Democrat (most likely Hillary Clinton), manage to win their party's nomination, an Independent candidate could be viable in 2016. The candidate would need to adopt and promote issues which unify Paul and Sanders supporters. To appeal to disaffected centrist voters as well, the candidate would need to delineate a plan to deal with the federal deficit, the national debt and unfunded liabilities.
In many respects, the 1992 Independent campaign of populist insurgent H. Ross Perot could serve as an archetype for an Independent candidacy today. That year, Perot garnered 18.9 percent of the popular vote. Surprisingly, he was actually ahead in the polls before dropping out of the race (He later re-entered the Presidential sweepstakes). Perot's candidacy was eclectic, hitting a populist tone with insurrectionists in both major parties.
Similar to this current election cycle, there was a populist uprising in the primaries of both parties in 1992. Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Pat Buchanan had sharp disagreements on fiscal issues, yet both challenged the establishment candidates of their party. Brown called his campaign "a populist movement" and said his campaign was "a cause to take back our government from special interests." Buchanan, running against Republican President George W. Bush, ran against the leadership of both parties, declaring: "the establishment that has dominated Congress for four decades is as ossified and out-of-touch with America as the establishment that resides in the White House."
Both Brown and Buchanan were opposed to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and both opposed U.S. involvement in most foreign entanglements, and shared a deeply rooted economic nationalism which viewed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as a threat to American sovereignty and to American jobs. Bush supported both the Gulf War and NAFTA. On the Democratic side, Bill Clinton, the de facto establishment candidate (once New York Governor Mario Cuomo announced he was not running), took a nuanced approach. Regarding the Persian Gulf War, Clinton said: "I guess I would have voted with the majority if it was a close vote. But I agree with the arguments the Minority made." Clinton did not take a stand on NAFTA until after defeating Brown, saying he would not sign it "until we have reached additional agreements to protect America's vital interests."
Perot styled himself as a populist insurgent. The billionaire industrialist gained support from some Brown and Buchanan supporters by emphasizing that he too had opposed the Gulf War and was a NAFTA opponent. He sounded a clarion call that the agreement would result in "a giant sucking sound" of U.S. jobs moving to Mexico.
Economically, Perot was a deficit hawk, excoriating the fiscal policies of former President Ronald Reagan which emphasized tax cuts coupled with increases in the Defense budget. Perot averred: "We got into trickle down economics and it didn't trickle." While Perot did not muster support from fellow deficit hawk Paul Tsongas (who lost the Democratic Presidential nomination to Clinton), a group of his supporters, called TCitizens for Tsongas (playing on the silent 'T' in Tsongas"), backed Perot in the General Election campaign.
In order to be a plausible alternative to the current two-party electoral hegemony, the Independent candidate must spotlight and support issues which unify Paul and Sanders supporters. Both candidates, and the preponderance of their supporters, advocate a smaller footprint abroad, oppose warrantless wiretapping, are critical of the American war on drugs, and favor support for criminal justice reform, which would include an end to mandatory minimums for repeat offenders. In addition, both candidates support auditing the Federal Reserve.
On foreign policy, the Independent candidate could unite Libertarians and Progressives by making the case that U.S. intervention abroad makes America less safe. Many Sanders and Paul supporters are non-interventionists. The establishment candidates in both parties are not exponents of a retrenchment of U.S. forces abroad. To the chagrin of many liberal Democrats, Hillary supported the authorization for the war in Iraq.
To mainstream the non-interventionist doctrine, the Independent candidate would need to point to the now unpopular war in Iraq as the epitome of the blowback U.S. intervention can cause. The candidate would need to point out that the war in Iraq and the sanctions regime which preceded it effectuated enmity toward the U.S., spurred the formation of ISIS, and resulted in Shia-Dominated Iran accruing an ally in the region, making the U.S. less safe.
The Independent candidate would argue that it is unconstitutional and paternalistic for law enforcement to wiretap an American citizen without first getting a warrant, that the U.S. can no longer afford to wage a war on drugs, which has cost the U.S. over a trillion dollars since 1971, and that mandatory minimum prison sentences leveled against non-violent drug offenders should be retired.
While all of the aforementioned issues would unify Sanders and Paul supporters, the Independent candidate would need to support an economic program similar to Perot's in 1992, which would reduce the deficit and begin to retire the National Debt while making short-term economic investments. There is no politically popular way to do this. The pain would have to be dispersed out across the spectrum.
The candidate would have to advocate entitlement reform, perhaps reducing Social Security payments to future wealthy retirees. This would appeal to advocates of fiscal austerity. That would be geminated with a truncation of the military budget, which presently tops 600 billion dollars. This is almost 20 percent of federal spending and more than what the next seven nations spend on their defenses combined. This program would appeal to Libertarians, Liberals, and fiscal hawks.
Independent candidates in the U.S. are only taken seriously if they can either pull together an eclectic crew of electoral discontents who are unhappy with the status quo, or if they can unify a widespread cross section of constituencies, while appealing to centrist voters who believe that entrenched partisanship is stagnating the country and that only someone from outside the electoral duopoly can move the country forward. Perot was able to appeal to both sectors, the insurrectionists from both parties and disaffected centrists. The political atmosphere is now in a similar situation to 1992. A candidate must appeal to the Paul and Sanders supporters in both parties, while concomitantly appealing to centrist voters who are open to electoral alternatives. It is quite possible that in this Presidential election cycle, the political stars may be aligning for another Ross Perot.