A lesson for progressive Democrats?

James Dobson has a column in today’s New York Times where he states that, at a meeting of 50 pro-family groups, a decision was made: “If neither of the two major political parties nominates an individual who pledges himself or herself to the sanctity of human life, we will join others in voting for a minor-party candidate.” He further adds: “The other approach, which I find problematic, is to choose a candidate according to the likelihood of electoral success or failure. Polls don’t measure right and wrong; voting according to the possibility of winning or losing can lead directly to the compromise of one’s principles.”

I don’t agree with Dobson’s position on abortion (or on much else for that matter). But I do admire his political drawing of the line here. It forced me to take another look at my own views on this matter.

Taking such a hard line entails two very huge risks. Let’s start by assuming that whatever third party candidate you endorse is going to lose. Either the Republican or Democratic candidate will win anyway. That said, there are two possible outcomes. On the surface, neither of the outcomes would be welcome.

The first is that the candidate of the party you would of otherwise endorsed (Republicans in the case of Dobson) wins anyway. If this happens, you run the risk of marginalizing yourself. The party sees that they can win without your support, indeed with your active opposition, The result is that your future influence is seriously eroded.

The other outcome is that, because of your shift to a third party, the party you would have otherwise endorsed loses. In Dobson’s case, this means the Democrats win. The risk for Dobson here is that he winds up putting someone in the White House who, on issues other than the key issue of abortion, disagrees with him far more than the Republican candidate does.

The Democrats faced this exact situation in 2000 when Ralph Nader, as the candidate of the Green Party, siphoned off enough votes from disgruntled Democrats, that Bush won. Although some dispute whether or not Nader’s candidacy altered the result, it remains a commonly held belief. The result was that, among mainline Democrats, Nader and his supporters were vilified. “If it wasn’t for you, there would have been no Bush and no invasion of Iraq…” And so on.

But perhaps mainline Democrats took the wrong spin here. Perhaps they should have said: “If we moved our positions closer to those of the Green Party on key issues, Nader would have not gotten so many votes. We would still have retained our votes and we would have won!”

What I like about this alternative spin is that it fosters change. If you get too frightened by the dual risks of going with a third party, and abandon the option under any circumstances, the two major political parties lose the incentive to respond to any concerns outside their comfort zone. You wind up getting a candidate like John Kerry, whom many Democrats supported reluctantly because they thought he could win rather than because they were excited at the prospect of him winning. And he lost anyway.

Maybe progressive Democrats could take a lesson from Dobson here. What we may need, if and when we are not satisfied with the party’s candidate, is not less support for third parties but more support. Sometimes you really do need to draw a line.

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