The Lone Ranger as president With no party ties: Never mind the difficulties in getting elected, an independent president would have some advantages.

Sun Journal

October 04, 1995|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Colin L. Powell believes it would be difficult.

Newt Gingrich says it would be a disaster.

Ross Perot thinks it would be a world-class success.

Politicians and historians used to debate whether a presidential candidate running as an independent could win. Now, they are mulling whether an independent candidate, having won the presidency, could govern the nation.

That the topic is being debated at all testifies that, perhaps more than at any other time in the last half-century, the notion of an independent or third-party president seems, if not probable, at least possible.

But since no president in more than a century has emerged from outside the system's major parties, an independent-as-president would be charting new waters.

"It's a new scenario and therefore unpredictable," says Stephen Wayne, professor of government at Georgetown University. "I wouldn't preclude it from working. Some people think the current thing isn't working very well."

Embodying the electorate's cry for something heroic, new and above the fray, a winning independent might enjoy an extended honeymoon period of Democratic and Republican goodwill on Capitol Hill.

But over the long haul, many -- including Mr. Powell -- believe governing without either a bloc of congressional Democrats or Republicans as loyal soldiers would be extremely tough.

"If Bill Clinton announces a program, he starts out knowing he can get at least 40 percent of the House and Senate to vote for it simply because he's a Democrat and they're Democrats," says William Mayer, a political science professor at Boston's Northeastern University who studies third parties

"A Colin Powell or Ross Perot starts out without that."

Mr. Wayne foresees three possible scenarios for an independent president: trying to develop a third party and encourage Democratic and Republican lawmakers to defect; attracting the support of one of the existing parties; or going it alone issue by issue, which he says is a recipe for "chaos."

Similarly, many of those sitting on the Democratic and Republican sides of the House and Senate chambers believe that if you choose to sit in the center aisle, you eventually become a doormat.

"You can produce a campaign speech, you can produce a 30-second commercial, you can hire consultants," House Speaker Gingrich said recently. "But when you get elected governor or you get elected president, if you are an independent, you have no base in the legislative body, you have no base in the country at large. I think an independent presidency would, in fact, be a disaster for this country."

But others, including independent governors who have had successful tenures, disagree. A number of political scientists make the point that, with the decline of party machinery over the past 25 years, the nation already has independent presidents in everything but name: politicians who are elected through their -- own efforts, not the party's, and govern with their own interests in mind, not the party's.

"We already have independent presidents -- they're just masquerading as Democrats and Republicans," says Benjamin Ginsberg, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Study of American Government.

"President Clinton is an independent. The congressional Democrats have pretty much written him off. They're long past supporting him because he's a Democrat. I don't think a truly independent president would be much different from what we have now."

For example, Mr. Ginsberg suggests that Mr. Clinton's greatest legislative success was the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, an accomplishment achieved through a bipartisan coalition made up largely of Republicans.

Although there is no example at the presidential level to examine, states have occasionally been governed by independents, often with positive results.

Former Republican Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut, who is contemplating an independent run for the presidency next year, was elected governor of his state in 1990 after running in a three-way race on a third-party ticket.

"Weicker, for not having any troops, got along reasonably well," says Wayne Shannon, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut.

The Hartford Courant, in a March 1994 series examining the leadership of its first independent governor since before the Civil War, noted that none of the chaos and gridlock predicted by Mr. Weicker's Democratic and Republican challengers came to pass.

In fact, Mr. Weicker, who retired after one term, and others in the state believe his independent status actually helped him more than it hurt. For instance, after a protracted, hard-fought battle, he put together a coalition of Democrats and Republicans to pass (by a single vote) an unpopular state income tax.

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