Where will the Moderates go in their Post-Block Era?

The Moderate Party of Rhode Island has a new(ish?) website. And a new Twitter account (previously, it was Ken Block’s account) complete with Block Era logo and a looming Bob Healey header image (it’s jettisoned the 4 E’s). But despite Healey’s dramatic 21.4% finish and candidate for Lt. Governor William Gilbert’s respectable 8.3% vote share, whether the Moderates will survive the next election remains the big question in its political future.

In March of 2012, I wrote how the Moderates were a party in need of an identity. Today that still holds true. The Moderate Party faces three major problems:

  1. It exists to solve a nonexistent problem.
  2. It is virtually completely defined by its gubernatorial candidate.
  3. It was the winner of a massive protest vote.

The first one is relatively simple. Rhode Island is one of the least polarized state legislatures in the country. Liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats come together to form one of the most liberal legislatures in the nation (I don’t want people to be confused; the state Republicans are liberal by Republican standards and state Democrats are conservative by Democratic standards). The problem of Rhode Island is not one of excessive polarization, but rather excessive centrism. The Moderate Party is attempting to claim a political space that is already dominated by both parties.

The second problem is more complex, because it’s an issue of recruitment. Prior to 2013, the Moderate Party existed almost solely to serve Ken Block’s ambition. That was probably not the reason he created the party… but long before the time Block announced he would run for governor under the Republican banner, it was clear that Block’s focus was not on building a political institution and more on promoting Ken Block. The Party and Block’s position in Rhode Island’s political world was fueled largely by Block’s wealth; and it was a position that was largely anointed by state media despite Block’s poor electoral performance. You can see this in the difference that the media gave in treating Block (who earned 6.5% of the total vote in 2010) vs. the numerous independent candidates running for office (a prominent example would be Abel Collins’ run against Langevin in 2012 — WPRI refused to allow Collins a place at the debate, but Collins won roughly the same number of votes as Block, and yet only ran in half the state).

The new website has made Healey the new Moderate-in-Chief. While this makes sense for the 2014 election, going forward, the Moderates will need to shift away from Healey and finally establish an identity. Healey made a name for himself over three decades of an unprecedented political existence. If you want an idea of the length of time consider this. This was Healey in 1998 (over a decade into his political career), when he was running as a Cool Moose against the then-new four-year gubernatorial term (he won 6.29% then):

Bob Healey 1998
Photo shameless appropriated from the Providence Phoenix – please read the archived article here: http://www.providencephoenix.com/archive/features/98/07/02/GOVERNOR.html

This is Healey sixteen years later:

Photo by Jade Gotaucco - Creative Commons licensed (retrieved via Wikimedia)
Photo by Jade Gotaucco – Creative Commons licensed (retrieved via Wikimedia)

Healey practically made himself into a Rhode Island institution (he is very effective at branding himself). And honestly, there was no better candidate for a third party to pick for governor than Healey. But if Healey is serious about ending his long fight, then the Moderate Party will need to search for some new standard-bearer. There is no obvious candidate to step forward. The problem of a third party is it must work 300 times harder than the two major parties. And if someone is that serious, then they’re probably already in one of the two major parties.

And now to problem #3. Being the not-Republican non-Democratic vote is useful in state where the national Republican brand is so tainted. But this is not a good way to build a lasting institution. What boosted Healey to 21.4% on November 4th seems likely to have been a protest vote. The question is now whether both parties have heard that protest, and how they will respond to it.

Very few groups have managed to peddle their protest votes into long-lasting success. The Moderates are hoping to following the path of early Labour in the UK or Syriza in Greece. But both of those groups rose from the edges of political thought, not from the center of it. It’s more likely they might find themselves in the position of the Liberal Democrats in the UK, or the Pirate Party just about anywhere. Especially in four years, unless Gina Raimondo has an exceptionally bad term and the Moderates have an exceptionally good candidate, we shouldn’t expect them to post numbers nearly as close.

On the other hand, I could be wrong.

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