The Washington Times

Political scientists have been writing for decades now about the decline of the major parties in American political life. It’s true that voters are less willing to identify themselves as either Republican or Democrat. And it’s likewise true that such massive developments over the decades as the professionalization of the civil service, thus diminishing patronage rewards at the disposal of party leaders, has reduced clout in the old style. Likewise, the democratization of the parties in the form of caucuses and primaries – including primaries in which nonparty members can participate – has substantially decreased the amount of business that gets done in smoke-filled rooms.

But the dominance of the two major parties over the political system can hardly be said to be in jeopardy. In the real political world, the Democratic and Republican parties are the game. Consider some cases in point from this political season:

* Patrick Buchanan. Mr. Buchanan used to be a serious figure in the Republican party – a hero to his Buchanan Brigades, a serious headache for many other Republicans. In 1992, he came to embody conservative disaffection from President George Bush, and the strength of his primary challenge won him a prime-time speaking slot at the GOP convention in Houston. In 1996, he actually won the GOP primary in New Hampshire.

Since 1994, a small but growing faction of the Republican congressional majority has been Buchananite in outlook, a potential building block for a serious politician. Now that Mr. Buchanan has bolted the GOP to seek his political fortune with the Reform Party, he finds himself locked in a faintly comic struggle for the nomination of a party so fractured that it seems, in total, no more than its $12.6 million in federal funding. Mr. Buchanan scores at about 1 percent in opinion polls. Without a major party on which and through which to act, he is now a fringe figure in American politics.

* Ralph Nader. As a Green Party candidate, Ralph Nader can perhaps be a spoiler in November. The stronger the Greens are, the more he drains from Democratic support for Al Gore, and the more likely George W. Bush is to win. But Mr. Nader and most of his supporters seem to be under no illusions about who they are: Democrats disaffected with the centrist line the party has been pursuing now for three straight presidential campaigns. The Green Party is not a vehicle for itself but a means to coax the Democratic Party back to the left. Whether Mr. Nader succeeds or fails in this, the result by 2004 is likely to be not a viable third party, but a party that has served its purpose or a party whose novelty has worn off.

* John McCain. Mr. McCain’s blunt talk about reform and his compelling biography brought huge numbers of independents and Democrats to the polls in GOP primaries. There were so many, Mr. McCain nearly knocked out Mr. Bush. Some analysts speculated about the possibility of a third-party run by Mr. McCain. Yet Mr. McCain is now locked in an embrace with Mr. Bush, and the reason seems clear: Mr. McCain has no political future as an independent but possibly a bright one with in the GOP. If Mr. Bush loses, Mr. McCain will be a leading contender for 2004 – provided he does his bit for the party this year.

* George W. Bush and Al Gore. Let’s not forget how these two got where they are. Estimable politicians in their own regard, they also left the starting gate of the 2000 election with the near-unanimous support of their respective party establishments. The importance of this fact cannot be overstated. In the case of Mr. Gore, a sitting two-term vice president is an obvious party consensus choice when times are good. Even so, Mr. Gore drew a primary opponent, Bill Bradley, who looked like he might mount a serious insurgent challenge. Yet Mr. Gore had, in effect, the full resources of the party establishment to put down the challenge, and down Mr. Bradley went.

Mr. Bush was hardly as obvious a choice as Mr. Gore, but he was no less the consensus favorite, first among the GOP governors, national party figures and major donors, then quickly among the activist base. What looked in 1996 like it might have been a wide open primary field quickly became Bush territory; Mr. McCain posed a serious threat; but Mr. Bush met it by using the party establishment to consolidate the support of the GOP base. While it is true that growing numbers of voters are calling themselves independent, there are still no corresponding independent institutions capable of speaking for them.

In general in Washington, it’s impossible to find anyone who takes politics seriously and wants political influence who is neither a Democrat nor a Republican. To be independent is to be powerless. No independent has ever been appointed to the Supreme Court or crafted an administration’s domestic policy agenda or whipped the passage of a piece of legislation. When the time comes for political action, the two parties are the gatekeepers now as much as ever.