By Alexandra Marks, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Call it one of the most uncommon political gambits of the year: two of the leading presidential candidates crossing party lines to call for an overhaul of the nation's political system.
Tonight as Republican John McCain and Democrat Bill Bradley join in a televised town meeting to tout the need to get special- interest money out of politics, they'll also be testing a time- honored American tradition - bucking the status quo.
As insurgent independents looking to knock out their parties' front-runners, both are going against the nation's political establishment, which they argue has been corrupted by big-money donations. But will it work? Both, to differing extents, are also taking on their own parties, a risky strategy that historically has produced only limited success despite its enduring appeal.
"It's an ... American tradition that taps the 'antipolitics' dimensions that have been a part of our political system since the Founding Fathers," says Thomas Patterson of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
When presidents Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan took on Congress as the establishment, they succeeded in changing the nation's political dynamic. But most who've challenged their parties' powerful chiefs, like John Anderson in 1980 and Gary Hart in 1984, made headlines for a while, then faded.
A few have wrested nominations away from the establishment's chosen heirs, from Wendell Willkie in 1940 to Barry Goldwater in 1964 to George McGovern in 1972. But then, they lost the general election. "That doesn't seem very profound, but we are a party system, and if you discourage your base, you're not going to be in good shape," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Jimmy Carter did win running in part as an outsider in 1976. But that year there was no clear Democratic heir apparent that had the party's blessings.
Still, most pundits are hesitant to underestimate either Mr. Bradley or Mr. McCain. By choosing Claremont, N.H., for their unusual bipartisan plea, they're pointedly reminding voters of the broken promises made by both parties' leaders.
In 1995, President Clinton and then House Speaker Newt Gingrich also crossed their ideological divide in Claremont and shook hands as they committed to changing the way political parties pay for their operations. The event produced a famous photo, but not much more.
The symbolism is not lost on either McCain or Bradley, both of whom are vying for independent voters, which are growing in number. Thirty years ago, three-quarters of Americans identified with one of the two major parties. That number has now dropped to under 60 percent, giving upstarts a firmer foundation.
"This is an age of independents, and parties don't mean what they used to," says Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, R. …