Thursday, November 6, 2008

Congratulations, Brent

"Who sweats, wins."
"Who dares, wins."
"Who plans, wins."

-- British Special Air Service (SAS) Motto

Two nights ago, a lot was spoken, written, and pontificated about concerning the major national and state elections that took place across the country.

One election you probably didn't hear about, however, was that of Brent Barton (D) of Oregon, who defeated State Rep. Linda Flores (R) for the Oregon House of Representatives seat in District 51.

I only followed it because Brent is a personal friend of mine who has long planned to run for political office.

You know what makes him different from every other idealistic twenty-, thirty-, forty-, or any-something who has ever thought about running?

Hint: It's not money, last name, passion for a single cause, race, gender, war hero status, fame, stature, community reputation, or any of the other things you might think are held in common by those who hold political office. It helped that he was a Democrat running in 2008, but that's not where I'm going with this.

Give up?

It's because he ran.

If that sounded so simple as to seem insulting, please think about it again:

It's because he ran.

That single fact alone -- having the chutzpah to go around and collect enough signatures on a petition to get his name on the primary ballot, to ask for donations and volunteer support, and then to knock on (literally, almost) every door in the district to explain himself and his policy stances is largely what separates him from the other 300 million or so of us who don't hold public office. Most people just wouldn't go through with it. When you actually break down the statistical chances of winning for those who do, they're really not that bad (I'm speaking only of local elections and term-limited things like governorships, not about U.S. House and Senate Seats with a less-than-10% turnover ratio...those are near-impossible for challengers).

To go back to one of my favorite all-time quotes, genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

The same could be said for political success.

As you already know, I'm fascinated with the world around me, and by natural extension, with politics. I'm not quite sure what my eventual role will be, whether it's journalist, kingmaker, campaign manager (or maybe just blogger!) but I've definitely entertained the idea a time or two (or three) of running for office as an Independent Centrist.

I'm not entirely sure at what level I may try to get involved, or when (I know it won't be in the next several years, or at least I return back from one full Guard deployment, whenever that comes, as that's when I'll be most certain about my upcoming long-range calendar).

Historically, third-party candidates are seen as single-issue advocates just trying to raise awareness (and eventual inclusion in a mainstream party platform) or just complete gadfly nutjobs. I think that's changing, however, because more and more voters are not registering as either "Republicans" or "Democrats." Minnesota, Connecticut, and Maine have all elected Independent governors in recent years, too (though all were already household names).

Also, third-party candidates are always going to have trouble raising money because they lack the support infrastructure/backbone that the major parties have. I fully acknowledge that problem, but in a local election a lot of that is mitigated. State elections would be tougher, yes, but just look at Freakonomics for some empirical evidence that in politics, it really ain't always about who can raise more money. And the real monumental sea change in recent elections, of course, is the Internet, which allows anyone to disseminate information on the cheap via several user-friendly formats. That's going to just have a stronger and stronger effect at all levels in the future.

Two major advantages to a centrist (i.e. not some extreme far-left, far-right, Libertarian or single-issue gadfly) third-party candidate would be these: avoidance of primaries and higher interest level in something unusual.

To the first point, look at something like a Massachusetts Gubernatorial primary. While a dozen or so Dems duke it out for several months and beat each other up (while the Republicans hold their state convention inside a phone booth), an independent could be quietly spending that time building a support base and talking to actual November voters, not just the party faithful. There would be no issue kowtowing. That's great because if I look at my death penalty stance (always against, no matter what) it virtually guarantees I could never win a Republican primary. I'm sure there's some conservative stance that would make me equally unpalatable in parts of Northampton or Cambridge.

To the second point, things like third-party candidacies which do offer something truly different (and just look at 2008 for evidence of how 'new' and 'different' can work to a candidate's advantage) can generate a lot of serious media and political junkie attention in a way that more traditional Republican and Democratic candidacies might not. Especially when that voice is coming from the center and not a fringe.

Here's a final point: I should also add that I think the actual process of running might be a total blast. So, let's say in twenty years I really go through with this and run for something. And let's say I get some pockets of support but only pick up 5-10% of the vote.

That still might be an amazing experience.

And maybe the candidate that actually wins will hire me as a speechwriter, which would be a pretty cool job that I never would've gotten otherwise.

In other words, losing could actually be a lot of fun, and might even be serendipitous.

Winning could be pretty great, too.

There's only one way to find out.


Nick said...

Hi New Englander,

Congrats to Brent! That's great news.

Also, I really dig (and always have dug) your points on third parties.

To add—the popular conception of third party futility is not just a shallow debasement of the Enlightenment ideals this country was founded on, but is also assumes that the contemporary state of professional American politics will always be the repressive monolith we have come to know.

Consider how much this nation has changed in the last 40 years.

For all the doom and gloom scenarios of financial ruin, global terrorism, continuous war, famine, and natural disasters, there is still the possibility that masses of people will harness power wisely and for the common good. I dunno—call me an idealist, but that’s what I think.

One other point about third parties—

The term third party is good shorthand for the concept, but I’m not sure how accurately it describes what we’re into here. I think the vague independent fits the bill.

Obviously, independent candidates will depend on institutions and organizations, but the party model should be destroyed; relegated to the scrap-heap of history.

I love this blog—keep it up!

Matt said...

You are ahead of your time with the independent centrist thing. I think as our (and younger) generations come-of-political age, there will be more and more of an appetite for the type of politics you describe.

And I think that Obama's success may be the first shot fired. I realize that Obama ran as a fairly conventional party-platform Democrat, but he won by vanquishing the two political dynasties whose political deceit and moral equivocation have ruled the American political scene my entire politically conscious lifetime and nearly pushed my cynicism about national service to the breaking point.

I realize Obama may turn out to be a fairly DLCish and centrist Democrat, and I concede that he was elected with great help from the DNC, but he succeeded by defeating the basic foundation of the monolith, and proved that a bottom-up style of campaigning and fundraising-- a necessity for any independent candidate -- really can work. Though I don't agree all of his views, his victory really made me excited about the possibilities of politics once again.

The New Englander said...

Matt and Nick,

Thanks, as always, for your insightful comments. It seems we agree that there may be a time when independent candidacies become more rule than exception in American politics, though we don't really know when.

The Internet really is a game-changer, and it has the power to turn a lot of Poli Sci-driven models about how exactly TWO parties will always emerge in a first-past-the-post election system.

The model needed, of course, really does have to be bottom-up...and although Obama was guffawed at for having been a *community organizer* the organization really came through in terms of get-out-the-vote and, as Matt wrote about, real, no-kidding bottom-up campaign organization that included TONS of very small donations which added up to lots of $$$.

Even though money isn't EVERYTHING, I would still admit it would be a major limiting factor for any independent candidate not already famous or wealthy on their own.

Still, in an era where we watch commercials for *free* on YouTube and avoid the ones on TV with devices like TiVO, all bets may be off.

Great posts, keep 'em coming..


Paul said...

A few questions for you:

Any major-name, possible third-party candidates that you like right now?

What are your thoughts about Bloomberg? I've greatly admired his tenure in NYC and am interested to see how he deals with (and how the public responds to) the tough policy decisions he's having to deal with now in the wake of the Wall St. heart attack.

Do you foresee any more defectors from the major parties to the Independent tag, especially among Republicans (i.e.: Hagel)?

Dittos to Nick's comment. Though I'm just catching up now, I'm really enjoying the blog.