There are three parties

There are three parties in American politics. The third is the Incumbent Party. By that, I mean the peculiar (though certainly not inexplicable) tendency of the interests of incumbent elected officials to merge or align in a way that starts to erase the traditional partisan divide between them and creates a different kind of divide between them and their respective Republican and Democratic constituencies. (I’m by no means the first to observe this, but I’m not sure who gets the credit for first doing so.)

Much ink as been spilled in the last 30 years about the possible rise of a true third party in America. One of the reasons, and there are many others, that no third party has materialized out of the numerous third party candidacies during that period, I think, is that most independent candidates were running against the Incumbent Party rather than taking affirmative steps to unify voters around an identifiable set of beliefs. Opposing the Incumbent Party is the thread that links Perot, Nader, and the outsider candidacies by the likes of Jesse Ventura.

Sad to say but Joe Lieberman has become a member of the Incumbent Party. Ned Lamont’s candidacy is as much about opposing an Incumbent Party candidate, as it is a litmus test on the Iraq War. Others have run under the traditional party banners while campaigning against the Incumbent Party, and enjoyed some degree of success: Pat Buchanan, Howard Dean, and Arnold Schwarzenegger (to an extent) come to mind.

But off the top of my head I can’t think of anyone who has epitomized the Incumbent Party dynamic to quite the extent that Lieberman has. His decision to run as an independent in the general election if he loses the Democratic primary is the perfect microcosm of the Incumbent Party phenomenon. It’s one thing to abandon your party when you have lost election, like Buchanan did (twice). It’s quite another for an incumbent to lose his party primary and then try to mount a general election challenge. To announce it before the primary, well, there can’t be much precedent for that. Can anyone think of any?

My ambivalence about Lamont, like most of those conflicted about the race, comes from wanting the energies and resources of Democrats to be focused on defeating Republicans in a year where there is a real possibility of wresting control of one or both chambers of Congress away from the GOP. A Democratic Congress with Joe Lieberman in it is a whole lot better than a Republican Congress sans Lieberman. But it’s difficult now to see how a Lieberman victory, in either the primary or the general, is anything other than a victory for the Incumbent Party.