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Editorials of The Times

Posted May 12, 2018 5:10 p.m. EDT

How California Could Bust Up the Two-Party System

California’s Republican Party is in crisis. Voters are leaving it in droves, its candidates haven’t won a statewide election in more than a decade and its lawmakers are likely to lose several important elections this year. Yet many of the party’s leaders and lawmakers seem unwilling to make the kind of substantive changes that would broaden its appeal. Its candidates for governor, for example, are competing on their fealty to President Donald Trump, when more than two-thirds of Californians who are registered to vote disapprove of him.

The GOP’s problems in the state are a symptom of the toxic political extremism that has forced sensible centrists to the margins of the party throughout the country. But in this problem there is an opportunity, one that California Republicans are in a singular position to seize: a chance to build a sustainable third party.

At least some Republicans in the state, chief among them former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have been trying to push the GOP to adopt more mainstream ideas and policies. This group includes people like Chad Mayes, who was ousted as the party’s Assembly leader after working with Democrats to reauthorize a landmark cap-and-trade program, and Kevin Faulconer, the mayor of San Diego.

But they are struggling to make headway against a party establishment that refuses to acknowledge that it is on the wrong track, let alone take action to change. Republicanism, even in California, has become inseparable from Trumpism because most of the party’s leaders and lawmakers are more focused on catering to its far-right base and elite donors than on speaking to or for the majority of Americans.

There’s a better way. Schwarzenegger and other reform-minded Republicans ought to create a new party that can woo independent voters, former Republicans and even disaffected Democrats. At the start of this year, barely a quarter of registered voters in California said they were Republicans, down from more than a third in 1997. At the same time, the number of voters in the state who say they have no party preference has more than doubled, to about 25 percent. This strongly suggests that most people who have left the Republican Party have not become Democrats and would be open to a center-right political party.

If a new California-based party can win votes and legislative seats, it could send a signal to politicians around the country that moderation can be a bankable political strategy, helping to break the vise grip of tribal politics that has turned so much of national politics into a blood sport and made it impossible for Congress to pass substantive bipartisan legislation.

American politics has tended to be hostile terrain for the idealists and romantics who have started third parties or mounted independent campaigns for the presidency, governorships and other elected positions. Most such efforts fail, and political experts say that a Californian third party made up primarily of former Republicans would have difficulty raising money. Many conservative donors would fear alienating congressional Republicans from California, like Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, who is angling to be the next speaker. What’s more, there may not be enough politicians willing or able to spend years in the political wilderness building a durable party.

That said, if a third party has a chance anywhere in the United States, it’s in California. The state allows the two candidates who get the most votes in an open primary, regardless of party affiliation, to advance to the general election. This should, in theory, make it easier for centrist and independent candidates who appeal to both right and left, like Schwarzenegger, who has never neatly fit into the Republican Party and is often the target of potshots from Trump. One former Republican, Steve Poizner, is running as an independent for state insurance commissioner, a position he held from 2007 to 2011. That decision seems wise, given that the Republican candidates for governor and senator will probably not be among the top two vote-getters in the state’s primary on June 5.

It helps, too, that an independent commission, rather than legislators, draws California’s electoral districts, making its districts more competitive than in other states.

Skeptics might argue that a new party would still be a minority force that would struggle to stand up to the Democrats. Nearly 45 percent of the state’s voters were registered as Democrats in January, down from 47 percent in 1997. That suggests that candidates for a centrist third party could win races that most conservative Republicans have no shot at. Plus, Californians’ interest in a third party has increased in recent years; a December poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 60 percent of adults thought both of the major parties were doing such a poor job that another party was needed, up from 46 percent in 2004.

A new center-right party in California would also serve as a check on single-party rule and all the pitfalls that can come with that form of government. Like Schwarzenegger, who, as governor, cut deals with Democrats and took seriously problems like climate change, lawmakers from this new party could end up wielding greater influence than their mere number in the Legislature would suggest is possible. They might also come up with creative solutions to pressing problems like the lack of affordable housing that Democrats like Gov. Jerry Brown have struggled to address.

Talk of third parties can seem like wishful thinking. But it shouldn’t in California, which prides itself on being home to disruptive businesses, pathbreaking artists and eclectic thinkers. The state’s Republicans now have a chance to help break the dysfunctional duopoly that is the American political system, and they should take it.

The Promise of Malaysia’s Old-New Leader

An autocratic politician emerges from retirement at age 92 to defeat his hand-picked but appallingly corrupt successor, and to clear the way for a former deputy he had imprisoned on trumped-up charges. It’s an unlikely plot for a political thriller, but that’s what is happening in Malaysia. And if things play out according to Mahathir Mohamad’s plan, the situation could represent a rare, if curious, victory for democracy in a part of the world where the trend has been in the opposite direction.

Mahathir, the nonagenarian, dominated Malaysian politics as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, guiding the country through rapid modernization and economic expansion. He also ran the nation with an iron fist, and among his victims was his charismatic protégé, deputy and presumed heir, Anwar Ibrahim, who was imprisoned in 1998 on sham charges of sodomy and corruption. Instead, Mahathir was followed in office by two handpicked successors.

The second of these, Najib Razak, stands accused of staggering corruption. The U.S. Justice Department, which has been investigating the theft of Malaysian public funds because they were laundered through the United States, says at least $3.5 billion was stolen under Najib, with $731 million ending up in his personal account.

Declaring his choice of Najib as a successor “the biggest mistake I have ever made in my life,” Mahathir threw his hat in the ring in the recent national elections, this time as head of the opposition coalition that had been led by Anwar until he was thrown in prison a second time, in 2015, again on politically motivated charges. Despite trying every dirty trick in the book, Najib lost, and on Thursday Mahathir was sworn in once again as prime minister, making him the oldest government leader in the world. Mahathir has made good on his promise to seek a pardon for Anwar, who could succeed him.

Mahathir’s return does raise questions. He has not apologized for how he led Malaysia the first time, including the way he treated opponents, like Anwar. But Anwar makes no excuses for teaming up with the only politician with the popularity and standing to unseat Najib and set Malaysia back on course. At his last court appearance, Anwar said the opposition was not supporting Mahathir the person, but rather “the reform agenda he has committed to.”

Malaysia’s government faces a rough road ahead, including investigations into the lost state funds that must avoid the appearance of a witch hunt. But the way has been made easier by Mahathir’s return to demonstrate that democratic processes do work. All that remains is for him to make good on his pledge to take his final curtain call as soon as Anwar returns.

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