A Fix to the “Spoiler” Dilemma

A Fix to the “Spoiler” Dilemma.jpg

The response to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s announcement that he might run for president as an independent has drawn howls of protest, particularly from Democrats who fear he will play a “spoiler” role and inadvertently re-elect Donald Trump.

This is a reasonable concern. The Electoral College is hostile to third-party candidates, as is the American system more broadly. A third-party candidate with little or no chance of getting elected can easily generate an outcome that is not consistent with what most voters want.

Yet the shrill Democratic response also rings false. How dare Howard Schultz run for president espousing views that might be more appealing to a broad swath of the American public than dismantling the private health care system and raising the top marginal tax rate to 70%!

For all the hysterical hand-wringing, there is an elegant fix: any serious presidential candidate concerned about the spoiler problem should pre-commit to dropping out of the race if he or she is not one of the top two candidates at some predetermined point, such as after the presidential debates.

That would give us all the benefit of having a fresh voice in the race without the potential for an unintended outcome. Ralph Nader should not have been in the presidential race in November of 2000; the same was true for Jill Stein in 2016.

America clearly needs more political competition. Public trust in government is near historic lows. A majority of Americans believe we need a third party. More Americans now self-identify as Independent (42%) than as strictly Democrat (29%) or Republican (27%).

Given our current state of political dysfunction, there is something almost amusing about either party declaring that an independent candidate does not have the right to run. It is particularly ironic that the Democrats — the party that managed to lose to Donald Trump in 2016 — are claiming the exclusive right to run against him in 2020.

The current immigration deadlock is a symptom of a much larger problem. The debt is growing, the climate is changing, and far too many Americans are struggling economically.

In no other industry could two incumbent firms deliver such dismal results and still claim an exclusive right to do business. Our two political parties are operating as a duopoly that has imposed a stranglehold on American governance.

The Constitution makes no mention of political parties. George Washington, elected as an independent, warned explicitly in his farewell address about the rise of “factions.” Sadly, he would recognize the current system as exactly what he warned against.

The process I have described would bring more choices to the race in 2020 without the spoiler problem. Best case scenario: an independent takes the strongest ideas from across the ideological spectrum, runs a campaign that speaks to all Americans, and begins the process of bringing the country together again.

Worst case scenario: a candidate outside the two parties flounders and drops out. What’s so scary about that?

If a candidate is not willing to take an anti-spoiler pledge, then don’t support them. If they are, then let’s hear what they have to say.

But this simple fix has a crucial footnote.

Any Democratic candidate ought to be willing to take the same medicine they are prescribing for Howard Schultz: drop out if you can’t win. Candidates warning about the spoiler effect ought to realize that they too could turn out to be that spoiler.

Any Democratic candidate who is not willing to make that commitment ought to re-examine why an independent candidate for president is really so threatening. They also ought to consider that there is a decent chance that Donald Trump may not be the Republican nominee, in which case the dynamics of the race will be entirely different.

The Electoral College is an institutional constraint, but it does not have to be a tool for silencing independent voices, especially when the largest and fastest segment of voters are those who choose not to belong to either party.

Here’s my advice to Howard Schultz: Speak to the American people during the campaign, drop out in October of 2020 you can’t win, and then endorse the person whom you believe will make the best president of the United States.

Here’s my advice to every other presidential candidate: do the same thing.