November 2, 2011 5:21 pm

Who should head a ‘third force’ in US politics?

Harness the wind of discontent, without brandishing cheap Tea Party pitchforks

Given the near universal opinion that the two-party American political system is broken, it is hardly surprising that talk of a non-partisan “third force” is in the air. It might get louder when the “super committee” of Congress fails to come to any agreement on reducing the national debt, as it surely will come Thanksgiving.

Both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement are reflections of discontent with the status quo, though the former operates inside the Republican party and the mostly liberal latter has not yet developed anything approximating a political agenda. Neither has yet produced identifiable leaders with coherent thoughts (viz the campaigns of Herman Cain and Rick Perry).

But it is a reasonable bet that Congressman Ron Paul of Texas will take the 10 per cent support he commands in the Republican party on another quixotic bid for the presidency under the libertarian banner, which should net him about two per cent of the national vote.

Progressive Democrats muse about a leftwing challenge to President Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries, but the only candidate they might rally behind, former Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, has shown zero interest in the prospect.

Meanwhile some internet entrepreneurs and Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, are pushing the idea that the country needs a “radical centre” – to be organised, naturally, on social media websites – to break the gridlock imposed by left and rightwing rigidities. Mr Friedman’s latest book, This Used to be Us, might be called its putative manifesto.

New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, already assembling his own brains trust, would doubtless make a takeover bid for this movement, should it acquire momentum. So, of course, would the eternally opportunistic and publicity-hungry Donald Trump, though it is hard to imagine The Donald and Saint Thomas breaking bread together.

But I have a better idea for an hypothetical “dream ticket” to head a third force. It would not matter which of the two heads it, but it would combine principle, experience and wisdom, not to mention both sexes, in one package. The protagonists would be Paul Volcker, illustrious former chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Elizabeth Warren, erstwhile architect of financial consumer protection for Mr Obama. Both are currently making waves.

One of the great American public servants of the last 100 years, Mr Volcker has been giving interviews in droves in recent weeks, including with this newspaper, as he never has before in his 82 years on earth. He is fighting for adoption in its strict form of the Volcker Rule, banning banks from proprietary trading, which is under attack from Wall Street and its presumed mole in the Obama administration, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

Mr Volcker seems to have learnt that reticence, in this day and age, comes at a cost. Recruited by the Obama campaign in 2008 as the financial world teetered on the brink of collapse, and named by the new president to head an independent commission, he found himself marginalised as Mr Geithner and Larry Summers worked their economic policy magic from inside the covens of government. Now he is talking the public language of the Occupy masses, also given different, but eloquent, voice in the marvellous new movie Margin Call, loosely but accurately based on the collapses of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns.

Ms Warren, the Harvard professor from a hardscrabble Oklahoma background, is running for the Senate from Massachusetts as a Democrat under the twin banners of accountability and consumer protection, both of which are still sorely lacking in the financial world. Some of the rallies she has held in her attempt to unseat Senator Scott Brown, himself the beneficiary of protest just two years ago, reportedly have the aura of revivalist meetings.

In their different ways, both are harnessing the wind of discontent, but without brandishing cheap Tea Party pitchforks. They will never be a dream ticket (Mr Volcker would have to give up his beloved fly fishing) but their aspirations should be an inspiration to those who dream of a better America.

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