I have long been conflicted about how much effort conservatives should put into third parties (see here) because I can see both sides. As I tried to write a response to Kevin’s letter, I couldn’t keep it under several thousand words. So I will work on a large article for later publication and just answer some of his arguments briefly.
1.) First of all, as the situation regrettably currently stands the purpose of a third party is not to win. Anyone who believes that is the purpose is deluded and bound to wind up frustrated. If you want your candidate to win, or you personally want to run a winning or even competitive campaign, do so within one of the two major parties. The purpose of a third party should be first to secure ballot access, second to recruit candidates, and third to use those campaigns as platforms for informing the voters and punishing unfaithful major party candidates. In our current rigged system, ideological third parties do not exist to be serious players in electing candidates and third party activists who don’t realize this are kidding themselves. When third party and independent candidates do well, they are almost always centrist, outsider, and/or represent one of the two already existing dominant coalitions, center right conservatives or center left liberals. Successful independent and third party candidates usually have money (Ross Perot) or previously existing name recognition (Charlie Crist, Lincoln Chaffee). Ideological third parties (Libertarians, Greens, the Constitution Party) that represent more or less “purer” versions of one of the dominant coalitions almost never poll above a few percent and almost never win. (The Libertarians are a little harder than the Greens or the CP to characterize as a purer version of one of the dominant coalitions, but they are definitely an ideologically pure party relatively even though some of the “radical faction” might disagree.)
2.) So to be happy in a third party you have to know what the purpose of a third party is. Again, no matter how much some might say otherwise, the purpose is not to win. If a third party activist knows this and accepts it then they will be much happier. Third parties exist to punish unfaithful candidates from the major party that more closely approximates your view, the Democrats for the Greens and the Republicans for the Constitution Party. They provide an alternative (a safety valve of sorts) for more principled and less willing to compromise activists and voters. And they exist (remotely possible) to fill the void if the major party closest to them implodes, as the Republican Party did the Whigs. The primary objective of any third party should be securing ballot access (more or less difficult depending on the state) and then fielding articulate candidates. Some third party critics say a third party that doesn’t win elections is a social club. I disagree for the reasons stated above. But a third party without ballot access and candidates really is a social club.
3.) For those who say that toiling away with a third party is wasted effort, I say no it isn’t as long as you know what you are working for. If a third party serves some purpose, and as I point out above I believe it does, then it may be a dirty job but someone has to do it. Those willing to do this thankless job should be commended, and since there are so few who are and so many who are willing to work within one of the dominant duopoly parties, this is why I think it is sad when someone like Kevin Thompson leaves the CP for the GOP.
4.) Now I have in the past encouraged conservatives to be free agents (see my link above), working with good candidates in the GOP when available and in third parties when necessary (this is generally the role I have played), but this generally meant that conservatives should be willing to vote for third party candidates in the general when the Republican nominee is insufficiently conservative and not be automatic GOP general election voters, and had less to do with actual party affiliation. But I really believe who decides to affiliate with a third party and who decides to affiliate with one of the dominant parties actually has more to do with the temperament of the individual than it does electoral strategy. Some more doctrinaire conservatives can work happily within the confines of a broad centrist party and some can’t. So if you can’t work in the GOP without perpetually being in a snit about their infidelity to principle, then join the CP. If you can, then work in the GOP.
5.) Now to address a couple of Kevin’s concerns directly. He suggests that a Baptist preacher (Baldwin) isn’t really qualified to be President, and even that he as an assistant pastor wasn’t qualified to be a Congressman. Well the first assertion is generally true, although I would wonder who really is qualified to be President these days given all that we ask them to do and be and the aura that has grown up around that office. No Baldwin wasn’t really qualified to be President although I would rather have him in office now than either Obama or McCain. Neither was Peroutka, a debt collection attorney, nor Howard Phillips, a lifetime activist and one time Nixon appointee. But it doesn’t matter whether or not they were qualified, because as we have established above, they were not going to win and their purpose of being on the ballot was not to win. So if they weren’t going to win, what difference does it make if they are qualified? What matters is whether or not they were articulate spokesmen and good representatives of the party’s message. Once you get that straight, all else falls together.
This is also related to the Keyes’ issue. First of all, Keyes was not opposed simply because he wasn’t pure enough. The philosophical objections to his Straussianism, his Declarationism, his support of Lincoln and his flawed view of the WBTS and the nature of the Union, were mostly coming from a small group of paleos, and at the risk of seeming like I’m self congratulating much of that objection was centered here at this website and was posted elsewhere by writers form this website. I think most CP members would welcome a well known candidate who might be more pragmatic on some tough issues. They have flirted with Sen. Robert Smith in the past for example. The problem with Keyes, aside from some of his personal history and baggage that might have made him a less desirable representative of the party, was that he was monumentally wrong on one issue in particular, interventionism. This, along with some of his personal baggage and the way he conducted his attempt to secure the nomination doomed him, not purists objecting to Declarationism. (Most rank-and-file CP members were unaware of this more esoteric debate that was raging on the web.)
So with the view in mind that the battle for the CP presidential nomination was not to decide who might seriously win the Presidency, but for who was going to represent the Party, then having Pastor Baldwin as the nominee vs. Keyes with his interventionism that he was still clinging to and never renounced and all his personal baggage was a high stakes game. Keyes might have gotten us marginally more votes, but how well did Bob Barr do, with name recognition and credibility similar to Keyes?
I would say in closing to Kevin, that the Constitution Party needs a few good men to carry out the actual function of a third party in our current flawed system. I am sad the CP of Wisconsin has lost him.