The quiet, consequential, and largely uncovered story of this campaign is this: An independent challenge for the presidency in 2012 is both probable and viable.
It was barely noticed until last week, but independent Lincoln Chafee is likely to be the next governor of Rhode Island. The story finally made national news after President Obama conspicuously declined to endorse Frank Caprio, the Democratic nominee for governor. Chafee, a former senator and one of the last of the banished breed of moderates in the GOP, had endorsed Obama in 2008; the president's silence this fall half-returned the favor.
When Obama demurred, Democrat Caprio pungently counterattacked — in a state where the president's ratings are high — saying that Obama could take his endorsement "and really shove it." In one phrase, Caprio proved he was even worse than voters feared — not just a machine politician, but the very model of a political thug. He may now finish third, behind Chafee and a Republican nominee whose name previously might as well have been "Anonymous."
Rhode Island isn't alone. In Maine, independent Eliot Cutler, a former aide to legendary Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, disdained the party Muskie built and decided to take on its nominee in the general election. It's time, he said, to "place the interests of all Mainers above the narrow interests of one party or another, one interest group or another." In a state blessed by nature but racked by high unemployment, he’s observed: "You can’t eat the view" — and with a detailed economic plan, he's insisting that "Maine Can Work." Cutler has been endorsed by the state's major newspapers as the common-sense alternative to his fading Democratic opponent and a Tea Party Republican who may very well prevail with a minority of the vote in a fractured field.
You can see cracks in the duopoly of Democrats and Republicans from coast to coast. After losing the GOP primary, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is running as a write-in candidate — against the Palin-endorsed nominee of her own party. In Florida's three-way fight for the Senate, Gov. Charlie Crist might have won as an independent if Democrat Kendrick Meek had abandoned his futile quest for the seat. And in Colorado, Hispanic-baiting former Rep. Tom Tancredo is testing Democrat John Hickenlooper in a governor's race in which the Republican candidate's tea is so toxic that he's nearly invisible in the polls. Hickenlooper will almost certainly win, but Tancredo is still more proof that voters are willing to look beyond traditional partisan boundaries.
None of this will be a headline on Election Night 2010, but it could be a harbinger of Election 2012. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has the resources and the increasingly evident ambition to run for president as an independent. The White House knows it — and the incumbent president has been personally courting the mayor with calculated but not necessarily availing care. Meanwhile Doug Schoen, Bloomberg's pollster (and Bill Clinton's in 1996), has written a book titled Declaring Independence, in which he bluntly declares "the beginning of the end of the two-party system." It's clear who he thinks can finish the job. Aides like Bloomberg strategist Kevin Sheekey are ready to go; Hillary Clinton's 2008 communications chief Howard Wolfson probably hasn't enlisted as Bloomberg's deputy mayor out of an abiding passion for municipal issues.
Bloomberg is obviously smart about money. And he's no Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who led both Clinton and George H.W. Bush by a healthy margin in the late spring of 1992 but wouldn't spend — and wouldn't listen. In the three most expensive mayoral races in world history, Bloomberg's mind has been as open to advice as his wallet has been to political reality.
That's why he'll run — but only if the trends of 2010 extend or accelerate toward 2012. Bloomberg could position himself as uniquely equipped to fix a sluggish recovery or respond to a double-dip recession.
After Nov. 2, regardless of who controls the House and Senate, Obama will have a Congress in which Republicans can and will block any legislation designed to spur growth and jobs. The politics of "no" will be recast as an assault on waste and debt, but it will be designed to prolong and profit from persistent unemployment — which the GOP will blame on Obama. The last thing Republicans want is the kind of recovery that reinvigorated Ronald Reagan after the recession-scarred midterm of 1982.
If Republicans succeed in protracting economic failure, Americans may blame both parties and Bloomberg could be the beneficiary. Unless the GOP manages to nominate Mitt Romney despite his scarlet letter on health reform, or unless Jeb Bush can ride to the rescue of the party, the Tea caucus could deliver the nomination to Palin, Gingrich, or Huckabee. If that happens, as John Heilemann has argued in New York, the socially liberal, fiscally responsible, and economically competent Bloomberg would have the political space to run between what he would call the Obama downturn and the Republican extreme.
This is the one scenario — and not an unlikely one — in which Bloomberg could actually get elected president. In a three-way race, he could carry states that would otherwise reject him. Despite, for example, his adamant support for gun control, he could win a Pennsylvania, an Ohio, even a Montana with 35 percent or 37 percent of the vote. The Perot campaign had a plausible path to 270 electoral votes until the candidate, stingy and arrogant, vacillated, withdrew, and re-entered. We've seen enough of Bloomberg in the arena to know that if he runs for president, he won't cut and run. He can appeal to business, to suburban Republicans, and even to core Democratic constituencies. One of the country's most influential gay leaders estimates that if Bloomberg is on the ballot, Obama might be left with only 30 percent of the LGBT vote.
That suggests danger for the country as well as for Obama. Bloomberg might draw many more votes from Obama than from the Republican, transforming an otherwise unelectable mess like Palin or Gingrich into the next president of the United States.
The president will do all he can to avert this scenario — to pump up the economy despite the intransigent GOP, to push off the Republican far right, and to keep Bloomberg far away from the 2012 campaign. But the mayor's already on the practice field. And while politics ain't beanbag, it is bucks — and Bloomberg has at least 16 billion of them. He could spend a billion and not miss it; he'd make more than that in the same year. What does he have to lose? If the independents and insurgents of 2010 are any guide, he just might win.