Blunt-Talking Non-Lunatic Mavericks?

John McCain lost any residual appeal to me when he revealed very clearly around 2003 that he had gotten off the Straight Talk Express and boarded the Fawning Courtier Slow Coach instead. Now he’s even managed to paint himself into the same corner that the President has, forced to look at the color orange and say that it’s actually a very pretty shade of blue. “Oh, sure, Baghdad’s got lots of safe neighborhoods. Hey, look at me walking through this market! Really, General Petraeus cruises around in a Thunderbird convertible.”

The usual argument is that it is impossible to get through the primary system for either American political party as a genuine independent. Yet paradoxically if you could do so, you’d likely have a very good chance of winning. I guess I question this conventional wisdom. I still feel that a maverick independent who was a no-bullshit, clear-talking populist without strong negatives might be able to get the Democratic nomination, even if the candidate took positions that were normally unappealing to the Democratic base. I think that would be harder on the Republican side because of the Christian right, but even there, potentially possible.

On the other hand, I have to admit I come up short when I try to think of people who exemplify the political image I have in mind who would have been viable candidates in the contemporary context. Most of the independent runs at the White House in the last three decades have been either a crazy unbalanced sort of maverick (Ross Perot) or a bloodless boutique kind of moderate (John Anderson). Some of the historical figures that people tend to think of as exemplifying this type got into political office either by appointment (Truman) or other non-electoral means (Theodore Roosevelt). (Nor is it clear that some of the often-cited examples of maverick political temperment really live up to their myth: Truman’s reputation in this regard has been burnished a bit over the decades.)

So, are there any better examples in American political history? Or any good contemporary examples of unambiguous independents who could arguably win a party primary in the Presidential race if they chose to try?

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12 Responses to Blunt-Talking Non-Lunatic Mavericks?

  1. hestal says:

    Two things I liked about Ross Perot is he believed in balanced budgets, his charts helped give Clinton cover to raise taxes, and he would do what he said he would do. It didn’t matter if you liked it or not, he kept his promises. So in his case, as in no other candidate in my memory, you knew what you would get if you voted for him.

  2. To win a primary, you’d need huge name recognition, so it would have to be either a major state politician or a media/movie star type… uh oh. Schwarzenegger? He might fail the “unambiguous independent” test, but pretty close in that respect too. Don’t know what his Iraq views are.

  3. jfruh says:

    This is a nit, but what’s the distinction between how Teddy Roosevelt became president and how Truman became president? Both were picked as veep candidates by incumbent presidents who needed a new running mate for their re-election bid (McKinley because his had died, FDR because his was considered politically suspect).


  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Right, pretty much the same thing–only difference is the method of death of the president. I should have just said, “by succession”. The major difference is maybe just that the vice-president wasn’t subject to so much scrutiny at either point, so you could have a maverick in that role.

  5. gbruno says:

    “Both were picked as veep candidates by incumbent presidents who needed a new running mate for their re-election bid’

    McKinley didn’t so much pick Roosevelt as have Teddy forced upon him by the New York machine of Thomas Platt.

    Jim Webb?

  6. I’m not an Americanist, but Al Smith might fit the bill as an historical example. Not a successful one, at the national level, but close.

    As far as examples in the present…. Al Gore might qualify, I suppose (it’s a bit of a rorshach). Kweisi Mfume, perhaps (my MD side is showing, I suppose)?

  7. dconners says:

    Maybe someone like Bernie Sanders?

  8. withywindle says:

    The reasons you have ceased to care for Sen. McCain are, presumably, the reasons he remains my preferred candidate for 2008. I don’t see “any good contemporary examples of unambiguous independents who could arguably win a party primary in the Presidential race if they chose to try”–but it would be peculiar if there were. A party electorate ought to choose a good party man as their nominee, and it would be a very strange and self-loathing electorate that chose someone who had chosen to be “independent” of them for most of his career. (Nor is independence of party any guarantee of virtue–it can simply indicate laziness, confusion, or stupidity.)

    As for policies, Mayor Giuliani actually strikes me as someone remarkably close to the independent center–if you read Fred Siegel’s *Prince of the City*, it’s pretty clear that he was enacting conservative Democratic policies (some of them pioneered by Mayor Dinkins) under a fig-leaf of Republicanism; his brand of socially liberal law-and-order policies would have been Democratic not so long ago, and are still congenial to Independents; and his pragmatic willingness to endorse Gov. Cuomo in 1994 was hardly the action of a party man. Now, these are also the reasons why he is still something of a longshot to get the Republican party nomination–but they do speak to his incarnation of some aspects of the political profile you desire.

    Me, I really don’t want him to be president, for various aspects of character, judgment, and policy. I may have to stomach voting for him over a Sen. Clinton or Sen. Obama, but I hope not to be forced to make that decision.

  9. I certainly respect your right to be non-partisan, but I think there’s a lot of strange handwringing about the two party system and the so-called lack of a “true” independent. Two parties, three parties, or more– there are going to be coalitions that force compromise and modulation. Both of the major parties struggle with serious philosophical disagreement within their ranks. Meanwhile, non-partisans hold a lot of power in their hands, but oftten fail to exercise it. Independents vote less often than party members.

    Money compromises politics and politicians. Machines compromise politics and politicians. If you don’t like the candidates, follow the money.

  10. Doug says:

    Colin Powell could have, at one time. Not any more, though.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    I don’t think of a non-party candidate as an abstract good, or that parties are by definition bad. But the architecture of the current system is such that the strong loyalists or core plus the money sources of each party exert veto power over presidential candidates, even when that’s not a good outcome in terms of viability in the general election. Let’s get real here about the Democrats, for example. Kerry, Gore, Dukakis and Mondale were all exceptionally weak candidates, and many of their weaknesses were overlapping: poor campaigners, technocratic, etc. That the party nominated candidates with these characteristics repeatedly suggests that the core voters of the party have fairly bad political instincts. On the Republican side, the party loyalists have pretty much driven their party off the road into a ditch.

    So that strikes me as a structural problem: candidates that a very large plurality of potential voters might prefer both for their temperment and political positions get vetoed in the primary process. I do not buy that this obligates independent voters to register for one party or the other to participate in the process, or to donate effusively to their preferred candidate early in the political process.

    What I am especially looking for is not someone who will refuse to compromise, or who has contempt for other political figures. I’m looking for four attributes in a possible presidential candidate. First, a *principled* respect for proceduralism. Second, a combination of a willingness to speak bluntly about the facts on the ground with a healthy respect for the messiness of life as we live it. Third, a willingness to try or consider new approaches to persistent problems, a kind of basic open-mindedness. Four, a very strong commitment to transparency in political process. (Not necessarily personal transparency: I don’t need to know if the candidate has felt lust in his heart, etcetera.) For me, anybody with some of those characteristics would be appealing even if some of his or her stated political commitments were different than mine. In part, because I think anyone with some of those attributes is persuadable, has no dogma.

    I don’t think I’m asking for a non-existent person, either. There are people like that in many institutions and walks of life, some of them fulfilling leadership roles. There are even a few like that in mainstream politics. But I think that they would face very serious structural challenges in getting a nomination for the Presidency. The paradox is that I think if a candidate like this got a nomination, he or she might well win.

  12. withywindle says:

    Ah, you want a mugwump. Or perhaps a goo-goo. It’s a minority taste. Though I suppose Sen. Feingold fits the bill for principled respect for proceduralism. And the Gang of 14 collectively embody some of that impulse. (Sen. McCain again.)

    1) I think the party process works better than you do. Kerry, Gore, Dukakis, and Mondale weren’t exceptionally weak candidates; they were *marginally weaker* than their opponents–and hence retroactively vilified for sundry incompetences beyond their desert. (And surely we should note Talking Point #4R: Gore got more of the popular vote than Bush.) They all expressed positions roughly at the center of the Democratic party coalition, and did respectable jobs of 1) keeping the extremes from not voting or turning to third parties; and 2) keeping the moderates from voting Republican. They lost on the margins; this should hardly make for a wholesale indictment of the men or the system. After all Pres. Clinton won two elections in the same system–by narrow margins. I see a similar process happening on the Republican side–Reagan, Bush, Dole, and Bush all represented fair approximations of the center of their party, all did reasonable tactical jobs of pursuing the vote. Margins make all the difference in winner-take-all elections, but they remain margins; I find it difficult to condemn so wholeheartedly people who lost by narrow margins.

    2) The Republican Party had problems on those margins in 2006; “driven into a ditch” is hopefulness on your part. I’m not quite sure what you mean by “party loyalists” in your indictment. If you mean the vast blocs of social and economic conservatives and their preferred policies, I doubt it. If you mean an unwillingness to purge the corrupt and the incompetent, I’m sure that didn’t help.

    3) It’s always possible to start your own party. Where being an independent means sitting on your hands and whining, I think a certain genial contempt is in order. The Greens, for example, though I find their policies wrongheaded, are civically respectable.

    4) I rather think respect for proceduralism is far more widespread than you give credit–on the Republican side, of course, but also on the Democratic side. I can come up with a litany of complaint about Democratic lack of respect for process and transparency and all that, but I presume a great deal of basic honesty on their part. I don’t particularly see the norms as eroding lately, despite the overwrought accusations in the various media.

    5) I don’t really see bluntness, openmindedness, or a consideration of the messiness of life as in short supply either. We’re awash in them. As a rule, we lack particular policies because they lack any broad base of support, not because of the personal failings of politicians, or because of any supposed logjam in the party structures.

    6) I’m less of a fan of bluntness than you are in any case. I want a politician to be a good rhetorician–with bluntness in his quiver, but no addiction to that mode.

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