The implications of the deal to raise the nation's debt ceiling remain murky. What is clear is that both political parties have been deeply fractured by the resulting "compromise" measure and that the independents who decide American elections have had their already keen antipathy for the political system sharpened by the ugly process that created the plan. As a result, at no point in the past century has the stage been better set for a third-party presidential candidate.
Activists within each party dislike the deal's substance. The Democratic Party's left detests its lack of revenue increases and its threat to crucial discretionary programs that are the soul of post-New Deal Democratic ideology. Even more fundamental is the concern of many Democrats that President Obama either lacks the backbone to stand tough for Democratic principles or lacks those principles at all.
Fortunately for the president, there is no Ted Kennedy-like figure whom the Left can employ to challenge his renomination (and scar him as a general election candidate). However, Obama will have to spend much of his campaign's impressive funds to nudge a dejected base to return to the polls in 2012.
Although they shaped the legislative dynamics that produced it, many Tea Party-identified members voted against the final deal because it wasn't tough enough in controlling spending. Tea Party activists' power over the GOP nomination process in 2012 was made clear by the rush of frontrunner Mitt Romney, his finger typically in the wind throughout the debate, to oppose the final bill. The GOP nominee will ultimately be a candidate of whom the Tea Party is dubious (Romney) or a loyalist who pushes moderates away from the party.
In the modern era, the 1992 election cycle is that which comes closest to the political environment of today. Despite his personal instability and ideological messiness, Ross Perot garnered 19 percent of the vote nationally in a country facing serious economic angst and angered by congressional malfeasance (in the form of check kiting and corruption). Today, the concern about the economic future is even more pronounced and the critique of the system is not targeted on the failings of individual members of Congress but on the entire system.
Even when the environment favors it, the odds against a third-party candidate becoming viable are immense. Gaining access to 50 state ballots is resource-consuming. Even more costly is the campaign that follows getting on the ballot. Finally, a candidate has to have some record of performance on the issues that matter most to voters and energize the swath of voters not loyal to the two parties.
Only one person in the country even approaches this list of requirements: a successful businessman turned successful manager of government in the nation's largest city who is socially progressive but fiscally moderate. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York has the personal resources to be the challenger to the status quo at a time when Americans badly want to shake things up. Bloomberg has said "a third-party candidate could run the government easier than a partisan political president." Will he heed his own call?
Jay Barth is the M.E. and Ima Graves Peace Distinguished Professor of Politics at Hendrix College.