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The third-party temptation

The third-party temptation

There are short-term and long-term consequences in a two-party system

Now that the major party presidential candidates are essentially picked, the question of minor parties is at the speculative forefront. The Republican Party cannot win without Christian conservatives, but Bob Dole excites little enthusiasm. It won't take much-a slight here, a typical Dole misstatement there-to send a crucial 10 percent of the electorate to a St. Patrick who promises to drive the snakes out of Washington.

I've emphasized in my humble communications with the GOP establishment the importance of a coalition with Christian conservatives. If candidate Dole does not choose a pro-life running mate and show his support for alternatives to abortion, he will have only himself to blame for a November defeat. But Christians who are tempted to join a third-party movement, and Mr. Buchanan who is tempted to lead one, also need to think before emoting.

Objections to a Christian-based third party this year often emphasize the likely short-term consequences: More unborn children dying, more trendy Clintonian judges, more authority taken from the family and handed to Hillary Clinton's "village." Those who join or lead third-party movements argue that they are accepting defeat this year and trading it for future success. But let's look to the long-term as well: Because our electoral system is oriented toward two-party competition, the third-party goal has to be either to change the system, or to replace one of the two existing parties.

changing the system to a French or Italianate one that promotes multiple parties would be hard to accomplish and probably not worth accomplishing. Governmental stability is not a central virtue, but since we have had it so long we probably underestimate its value. Furthermore, the two-party system, with all its faults, has made it necessary for politicians to convince the undecided, not just rally their own forces.

If we stick with a two-party system, do Christian conservatives who are political separatists really believe that a pure but marginalized party will be more effective than an often-frustrating but maturing Republican coalition? If so, they are going against the pattern of recent American history, which shows that (1) Christian liberty and biblical morality are threatened by the big-government programs that are now sacraments of secular liberalism; and (2) such aggression can be contained when Christians work in coalition or at least co-belligerency with non-Christian conservatives.

Pat Buchanan at the apex of his campaign visited South Dakota and posed before Mount Rushmore; he could learn something from those who are memorialized there. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, understood the need for a coalition between those who favor small government to preserve individual liberty and those who desire holy government to promote virtue. His positions on trade, immigration, and big business grew out of his Bible-based unwillingness to help either poor or rich steal from each other.

president roosevelt stressed both "the well-being of the wage-worker" and "the need for wider markets." He stated that immigrants unable or unwilling to work and obey American laws could be excluded, but kept doors open for every immigrant "who brings here a strong body, a stout heart, a good head, and a resolute purpose to do his duty well in every way and to bring up his children as law-abiding and God-fearing members of the community." He broke up Standard Oil, which had used predatory tactics to drive out smaller competitors, but he did not increase government power by going after other companies generally.

Significantly, it was only when Theodore Roosevelt gave up on coalition-building that he erred politically. Bored after leaving the White House in 1909 and unhappy with his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, Roosevelt led holy government forces against Taft for the Republican nomination. When TR fell short he charged around like a bull moose, telling his followers, "We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord." Roosevelt's third-party destructiveness in 1912 opened the way for the first Democratic president of the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson, but did not lead to permanent party reconfiguration.

I am not advocating a "nothing ventured, nothing gained" politics. Christians in politics who deliver the votes need to be as clever as foxes as they collect IOUs from successful candidates. Bob Dole owes some evangelical leaders big time, and the credible threat of Christian conservatives sitting out the presidential election should keep him from picking a pro-abortion running mate. A Christian political party, by comparison, is an early model blunderbuss more likely to explode in our faces than to hit its target.

It is emotionally satisfying to sing "Onward, Christian soldiers" and split. It is necessary to do that in down-the-drain denominations and some other areas as well, but political parties are not churches. Each time Christians have followed the piping of 20th- century political separatists, much has been ventured and nothing gained, either in the year of effort or during the thin years that followed.