Biden, Trump and what the two-party system gives us

The Wall Street Journal

Many Americans are unenthused, to say the least, about a 2024 grudge match between two grumpy old men, President Biden and Donald Trump. But after months of No Labels teasing an alternative “unity ticket,” it recently pulled the plug after failing to find a candidate. The exercise says something about the country’s political system and this particular moment.

No Labels isn’t wrong that many voters think the two big parties are serving up the equivalent of week-old leftovers. In the latest Harvard/Harris poll, 62% (and 71% of independents) say the nation “needs another choice.” Or look at last week’s primaries: In Wisconsin, nearly 21% of Republicans spurned Mr. Trump, with 12.8% for Nikki Haley and 3.3% for Ron DeSantis, long after both left the race. In Rhode Island, more than 17% of Democrats refused Mr. Biden, with 14.8% for “uncommitted” and 2.6% for Dean Phillips.

Yet a longstanding feature of America’s political system is a balance between two major parties. The Electoral College forces a majority winner among the states. Even if an upstart third party earned a plurality (say, 40%) for its presidential nominee, this would throw the election to Congress, back to the control of Republicans and Democrats.

Compounding the difficulty is that third parties are required to hustle merely to get their candidates on the ballot, though No Labels said it had qualified in 21 states. Two-party systems have drawbacks, but the upside is that they avoid the political fragmentation that ails many parliamentary countries, where it’s a struggle to put together any kind of governing coalition. See Israel or much of Europe.

Also, successful political movements tend to rally voters to some specific issue or cause, and it was never clear what a No Labels agenda would look like. Immigration is one place that Republicans and Democrats are doing damage by refusing to compromise. But splitting the difference on everything isn’t a galvanizing message. The left wants higher taxes. The right wants lower taxes. Would a No Labels nominee pledge to keep taxes the same?

Without a larger cause, No Labels needed a strong political personality. One by one, its best prospects said no. Some didn’t want to be a spoiler. “If my candidacy in any way, shape or form would help Donald Trump become President again,” former New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie said, “then it is not the way forward.”

Others courted by No Labels (Haley) might still hope for a future inside their parties, especially since whoever wins the White House in November will be a lame-duck president ineligible for 2028.

Given those dynamics, it was always a longshot that a unity ticket straight out of a buddy cop movie — Larry Hogan for President, with VP Joe Manchin riding sidecar, or vice versa — could take mellow centrism to the Oval Office. Crazier things have happened, but it probably would have depended on a collapse in support for either Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump, which isn’t in evidence, despite their manifest political and personal liabilities.

The public is left with an unappealing choice. Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump are in a codependent political relationship. Each imagines that he’s the only candidate who can defeat the other, when the truth is that each is being propped up by the other’s flaws.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is no good alternative. He’s a vessel for the discontented, a man of the left who feints to the populist right. Unlike No Labels, Mr. Kennedy apparently doesn’t mind being a spoiler, but which side he’ll hurt more is hard to guess and the polls offer conflicting evidence.

It’s going to be a mean and ugly campaign, and a perilous four years of high polarization, no matter who wins. On the bright side, at least the winner can only serve one more term.