Why Utah’s new political party won’t matter

by Gordon Jones

So Utah has a new political party: United Utah, or Utah United, or maybe Manchester United. As a political development, this one has no long-term significance, and cannot possible accomplish what its movers hope.

Utahns (and indeed Americans in general) have a basic idea of what Republicans and Democrats believe. Those of us who identify with one or the other (and at the moment I do not) may not agree with all their fellow party members on every issue, but they have reached a broad consensus on most issues, enough for them to co-operate with one another.

But what does Manchester – I mean Utah United stand for? Let’s start with the two names mentioned in all the breathless news stories about the launch: Jim Bennett and Richard Davis. On how much do these two agree, given that one of the is a former chairman of the Utah County Democratic Party and the other is a scion of one of Utah’s most recognizable politicians? Outside of a palpable and perfectly understandable distaste for the existing parties, my guess is, not much, certainly not enough to cobble together a political coalition capable of winning elections.

Under the circumstance of a special election in Utah’s Third District, precipitated by  the abdication of Jason Chaffetz, it is conceivable that Utah United could elect someone with no political background, no known views on any issue, and instant name recognition.

Oops, Tanner Ainge is already running as a Republican.

But here’s the reason why this effort is doomed in the long run and highly unlikely to succeed even in the modest task of electing Chaffetz’ successor.

Let’s assume Sally Matheson Monson is nominated by the new party, and, given the 433 candidates running as one of the other two, she squeaks in with a 12 voted plurality (worked for Lyndon Johnson, right?). She gets on a plane and flies to Reagan Airport in Washington. Getting off the plane she is greeted by Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi, who shout in chorus “who are you going to caucus with?”

She will have to answer that question one way or the other, because if she answers “neither,” her effectiveness is at an end, long before it ever started.

Because, boys and girls, the U.S. House of Representative is run by the Republicans right now, and when it isn’t run by the Republicans, it is run by the Democrats. That has been the case for more than 150 years, and it isn’t going to change because someone got elected on the United Utah ticket.

But there are independents in Congress, I hear you object. Isn’t Bernie Sanders an independent? Isn’t Angus King an independent? How about Virgil Goode and Harry Byrd and Jim Buckley and half a dozen more I can come up with without the help of Google? Weren’t they independents, some in the House and some in the Senate?

The answer is no, there are not. Sanders and King, for example (there are no current House examples, but the principle is exactly the same) are functional Democrats. They caucus with the Democrats in the Senate, which means they vote for the Democratic leadership, and get their committee assignments from the Democratic Steering Committee. When Jim Buckley and Young Harry Flood Byrd (he lived to be 99 years old, but was always “Young Harry,” to distinguish him from his father, “Old Harry”) sat in the Senate they caucused with the Republicans, as did Virgil Goode in the House.

As a practical matter, Sally is going to have to answer that question long before she gets on the plane, and when she answers it, she will become a functional Republican or a functional Democrat. If she says she is going to caucus with the Democrats and vote for Nancy Pelosi (or even Steny Hoyer) for Speaker, her election chances evaporate. And if she answers that she will caucus with the Republicans, well, she might as well have run as an R in the first place.

It would have improved her chances.

I understand the frustration of Messrs. Davis and Bennett. As evidenced by my present unchurched status, I share it. And I have great affection for third parties, having voted for their candidates on many occasions. And many of these third-party efforts, particularly at the national level, have had an effect on the nation’s politics. But these efforts have usually been mounted from the extremes, not from the middle, of the political spectrum.  Pat Buchanan’s presidential candidacy pulled the Republican Party to the right; Ralph Nader’s pulled the Democratic Party to the left.

I note in passing that this accomplishment is the exact opposite of what Messrs. Bennett and Davis intend.

But, but, but, but…. (There you go again!) With all that pulling to left and right, doesn’t that leave a potential plurality in the middle that could be mobilized to win elections? Again, no. To begin with, when one probes the so-called independents, it turns out that they are really just soft (and relatively uninformed) Democrats and Republicans. Soft Ds, for example, are much more likely to agree with hard Ds than they are with soft Rs. And when the point comes, as it always does, when the voter has to decide between competing policy positions, the choice will be made between R and D. Certainly at the local level.

So, any serious challenge to the bi-polar (may we even say Manichean) condition of politics in America today is going to have to start at the top. Had Donald Trump run as the candidate of the United America Party, or the America United Party or even (in his case) the Manchester United Party, he could conceivably have recruited enough House and Senate candidates to pose a realistic challenge to the existing duopoly.

But it won’t be done from Utah’s Third Congressional District.

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