Time to End theTwo-Party System?

More politicians -- and more voters -- are feeling out of place in either the Democratic or Republican Party.

In just a few days, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist will have to make a fateful decision -- whether to abandon his fight for the GOP Senate nomination and seek election as an independent. A lifelong Republican considered for the vice presidential nomination and once seen as GOP presidential prospect, Crist has fallen far behind conservative challenger Marco Rubio in the primary. Though Crist’s GOP credentials were once unchallenged, his embrace of President Obama’s stimulus money (and of Obama himself in a now fateful photo) has made him the target of Tea Party activists.

In Arizona, meanwhile, former presidential candidate John McCain is fighting for his political life against a more conservative primary challenger, ex-Rep. J.D. Hayworth. In an effort to move to the right, McCain now denies the maverick label he once championed, says he made a mistake in voting for the 2008 financial bailout, and no longer supports a comprehensive immigration bill. Just last week he went so far as to accuse illegal immigrants of “intentionally crashing cars on the freeway” in an interview on Fox. (I guess he thinks they’re eager to be arrested by Arizona police, who will soon be newly empowered to put illegal immigrants in jail.)

In Utah, GOP Sen. Bob Bennett, whose conservative credentials go back decades, is under attack for voting for the financial bailout and for cosponsoring a bipartisan alternative to President Obama’s health care bill. He may well lose his state’s primary.

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Republicans are feeling the heat more than Democrats because of the rise of the Tea Party, most of whose members are registered Republicans, and because of long established conservative groups like the Club for Growth. But Democrats are hardly immune. They’re under attack for divergences from a strict party line. Ark. Sen. Blanche Lincoln faces a tough primary because of her lack of enthusiasm for the health care law and other Obama initiatives. And in North Carolina, no fewer than three Democratic incumbents are being challenged by labor unions unhappy with their refusal to vote with the Democratic majority.

What’s odd is that the two parties are being pushed further left and right, despite the fact that a big majority of Americans put themselves in the middle. In fact, Obama won the election in 2008 by appealing to the middle and promising to govern from the center. Liberal Democrats complain that he’s lived up to that promise, making too many compromises they don’t like. Conservative Republicans insist he’s so radical that he’s pushing the U.S. into socialism.

I tend to believe Obama is seeking the center, with the stimulus and health care bills being prime examples. The stimulus was half the size he originally sought (many economists still think bigger would have been better), and he dropped the public option and made scores of other compromises on the health care bill. I’m sure the comments to this post will say I’m crazy -- that Obama is so far left he’s un-American -- but that will just prove my point.

The tendency toward extreme political views is only growing stronger, in part because the media make a lot of money by pushing it. It’s not a coincidence that half of Tea Party members (in a recent NYT/CBS poll) get most of their “news” from Fox while liberals get theirs from MSNBC. As National Journal’s Charlie Cook noted this week in a column aptly headlined “Home of the Whopper,” commentators on both sides have become very skilled at twisting selected facts to “prove” their presumptions. Unlike the old days (20 years ago), when most Americans read or listened to journalists who at least tried to be objective in giving people facts so they could draw their own conclusions, today’s cable commentators and Web sites give too many people arguments to support the conclusions they already believe in.

That leaves the silent middle with nowhere to go and, worse, no representation in the political arena.

But that will be hard to come by in the foreseeable future. If Charlie Crist runs as an independent, he’ll probably lose, in part because he won’t have the machinery and money. Nate Silver makes a strong case for that today, and in the process explains why it’s so hard for any third party candidate to make any headway. Unless or until we do that, it’ll only get worse.

The only way to change that is to create a new party (a big and long-term challenge) or for the silent middle to speak up -- and to vote. The reason so many moderates face tough primary elections is that primaries are dominated by hard-core party members.

Mark Willen
Senior Political Editor, The Kiplinger Letter