Don’t assume that 2008 will represent an easy Democratic win over the Republicans.

It may be far more interesting than that.

Whenever dramatic change undermines America’s broad political consensus, the familiar two-party system fractures into a multi-sided contest. What has turned out to be a long hard slog in Iraq may produce an echo of other presidential-election years in which broad dissatisfaction fueled a serious challenger to the two major parties.

In 1948 it was the rapid demobilization of the army, segregation, industrial strikes and the onset of a new Cold War that combined to fracture the Democratic Party. The incumbent president, Harry Truman, had to run not only against the Republican standard bearer, New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, but against two defectors from his own party: South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond, on the States Rights ticket, and former Vice President Henry Wallace, who became the Progressive Party candidate.

During the 1968 race, it became obvious that the Democratic Party had damaged the foreign-policy consensus by venturing into the Vietnam War and found itself facing not just dissension but riots at its nominating convention. And because the party had also upset the status quo with sweeping civil-rights legislation, it faced a breakaway movement of reactionaries led by George Wallace, who won five states and 46 electoral votes.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter had stumbled into oil embargoes, steep inflation and a humiliating hostage episode in Tehran. Consequently, he first faced a bitter challenge from Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy for re-nomination and then, because many voters were skeptical of the Republican nominee, Ronald Reagan, as an alternative to Carter, Illinois Republican Rep. John Anderson was able to mount a serious third-party challenge.

Finally, in 1992, there was no Cold War and suddenly no Soviet Union by which to measure the stature of major-party candidates. Indeed, there was little interest in foreign policy and yet confusion over what should matter. The foreign-policy president, George H.W. Bush, was challenged by a Democrat seemingly so lacking in credibility, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, as an alternative that voters that year flirted with the third-party candidacy of billionaire H. Ross Perot, an entertaining novelty who finished with nearly 20 percent of the vote.

Why should 2008 be different?

In a replay of previous third-party years, the current sitting president plumbs new depths of public disapproval. Mired in the consequences of a serious foreign-policy misstep, his party has already been pummeled badly enough in the mid-term election to lose its majority in the House and Senate.

Perhaps in defeat it will nimbly regroup. But it seems unlikely that its core constituencies will offer enthusiastic support to any of the leading Republican candidates, thrice-married and pro-choice former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, or just arbitrarily considered not-one-of-us, such as Arizona Sen. John McCain. The party’s nomination, if nothing changes significantly, may not be worth the proverbial bucket of warm spit.

Meanwhile, the multitude of Democratic candidates is well aware of the built-in advantages of whatever nominee they present. They find it well worth their while to engage in the marathon melee of primary elections and caucuses because the lucky winner will be able to run against the record of George W. Bush and the Republican Party. Nevertheless, we can guess that by the time it’s over the winner will be bruised and vulnerable, and the once-enthusiastic supporters of the losers will be disappointed and disenchanted.

Thus, if the Democratic nominee isn’t cracked up to be everything everyone wanted, and if another Republican presidency is not seen as acceptable, a significant third column will appear, if not a possible fourth and fifth, to present that alternative.

(Peter J. Woolley is a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University, in New Jersey, and executive director of PublicMind, the university’s public-opinion-research group.)

Comments are closed.