Lee Hamilton
President & Director, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Former Congressman

Are two parties enough?

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Though he's a party member, Lee Hamilton believes that the American system needs to be more open.

Lee Hamilton

Lee H. Hamilton is president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and director of The Center on Congress at Indiana University. Hamilton represented Indiana’s 9th congressional district for 34 years beginning January 1965. He served as chairman and ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, chaired the Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran, the Joint Economic Committee, and the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress. As a member of the House Standards of Official Conduct Committee Hamilton was a primary draftsman of several House ethics reforms.

Since leaving the House, Hamilton has served on several commissions including serving as Vice-Chair of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission), co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, the National Commission on the War Powers of the President and the Congress, and the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States. He is currently a member of the FBI Director’s Advisory Board, the Defense Secretary’s National Security Study Group, and the US Department of Homeland Security Task Force on Preventing the Entry of Weapons of Mass Effect on American Soil.


Question: Are two parties enough?

Lee Hamilton: I think we need a more open system. I'm perfectly willing to accept a system that encourages third parties to come into the race. Don't underestimate the third parties, however. George Bush would not be elected President of the United States if it had not been for Ralph Nader. Bill Clinton would not have been elected President of the United States if it were not for Ross Perot. So they may not win the presidency, but they can certainly have an impact, third parties. Now your question is a little different, and that is should we be more open to them. And I think the answer is yes we should. I’m a party member, but I understand that people can be terribly disappointed by the performance of the political parties. I'm disappointed by the performance of my own party. My choice has been . . . and it's not the choice that everyone would make, but my choice has been to try to work within the party to strengthen it. A lot of people make that choice. A lot of people say that's not the way to go. The parties are too unacceptable as they are. I don't quarrel with that decision. I think it's a reasonable position. It was not the position I adopted, but that doesn't make it wrong. It could be the right way to go. We do have to emphasize the fundamental values of our system – tolerance, rule of law, compassion – and that leaves a lot of room for change. And we must always have in our mind a receptivity to changing our structures and not think that because we've had a two-party system for lo these many years, that's the only way that the country works.

The record . . . The historical record obviously is not very encouraging for the third parties; but who knows what the breakthrough might come and how it might come? I don';t know. I can't foresee that, but I wouldn't exclude it happening either.

Question: What impact would a credible third party have?

Lee Hamilton:Well I think you have a lot. Look what Ross Perot did. He talked about the budget deficit. Neither party candidate of the major parties was talking about the budget deficit. He came into the campaign – not only did he affect the outcome of the election, but he put on the national agenda the budget deficit. Third parties make contributions even when they don’t win elections. It may come that they’ll be an issue at some point that will propel a third party into victory. Who knows? I can’t foresee that. I don’t think I’d predict it in the next one or two presidential elections; but I’ve been fooled a lot of times in the process and it could happen.

Recorded on: 7/5/07