But here's the rub: Presidential elections are exactly the wrong place for a third party. I mean, what the heck would an independent or third-party President really be able to accomplish? Without any built-in influence in Congress, it would be completely impossible for him to do anything bold. Oh, he could talk a good line, but the reality is that he'd spend four years as a completely ineffectual placeholder, gradually getting more and more frustrated.
Truth to tell, there's a specific party that I'd love to see exist. I think of it as "rational libertarian": fiscally conservative without being completely anti-tax loony; socially liberal but hard-eyed about what actually works. Explicitly a middle-ground party that exists for those of us who straddle the line between William Weld and Bill Clinton. (Yes, the Democrats are currently more or less filling that void, but they find themselves with a perpetual tension between the centrist and left wings of the party. A genuinely centrist party would, IMO, clarify modern politics a lot.)
But most importantly, if this party did exist, I wouldn't want it to run someone for President for at least the first 10 years. It's a waste of resources: Presidential elections are expensive distractions for a small party. Instead, I'd like to see a party that was smart, and focused all of its resources on winning just a few Congressional seats at first. Raising money nationally, but choosing a few specific seats where the voters are clearly looking for a good alternative, and where an appropriate candidate exists. Making a truly serious, concerted attempt to win, say, ten seats.
Because y'know, ten seats is a lot in Congress these days. The Presidency is all-or-nothing: one side wins, the other loses. But ten seats in a closely-divided Congress could be enough to sway a lot of issues. A party that held those seats, supporting either the Republicans or the Democrats depending on which one was appropriate on a given issue, could come out looking pretty serious and respectable. And a party that looked respectable and useful would stand a much better chance in the next election.
I'm not going to pretend that I have the slightest notion of how to really get such a thing started -- if nothing else, it would take a degree of passion, commitment and patience that I know I don't have for politics. But it's pretty clear to me that it's the right strategy to get a sincere third party established for the long term. In this increasingly small country, where people really do care about who gets elected to seats halfway across the country, I think it would work well...