Reform Party Follies


In the summer of 1998, Jesse Ventura, who was running for governor of Minnesota on the Reform Party ticket, wanted to obtain a loan from the party's national headquarters to pay for political advertising, but he couldn't get the national organization on the phone. National Chairman Russell Verney later explained to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, "The Reform Party really does not have an office. We have a virtual office."

As the 2000 campaign approaches, however, Ventura's victory has given the Reform Party its first major officeholder, and a new Tampa office is being planned. And Pat Buchanan's expected defection from the Republican Party has provided the Reform Party with a potential presidential candidate who is well known, if not notorious, and who could probably secure the 5 percent of the vote the party needs to maintain its federal funding in the 2004 presidential election.

Yet even Ventura's victory and the possibility of Buchanan's candidacy may not have given the Reform Party the reality and solidity that it seemed to lack after Perot's unimpressive showing in the 1996 election. The question remains: can the Reform Party become more than the sum of its celebrities- a genuine political force that represents an alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties?

The answer to this question rests not as much on who gets the Reform presidential nomination in 2000 as on whether the party itself occupies a significant and growing space within the American electorate that the other parties are either unwilling or unable to inhabit. Perot appeared to do so in 1992, but the Reform Party he founded in 1995 has suffered from crippling divisions within its leadership and from a shrinking base of support.


The Reform Party and its precursor- the Perot presidential campaign of 1992- were the product of structural changes in American politics that have made third parties and independent candidates more feasible than they were a half century ago. Party loyalty has declined; the old party machines have disappeared and have been replaced by clusters of loosely bound candidates, campaign consultants, and fundraisers with only a tenuous connection to the electorate. According to the National Election Studies (NES), those voters who identify themselves as independent or "leaning independent" have climbed from 23 percent in 1964 to 36 percent in 1998. Those favoring the existence of a third party (but not necessarily committing themselves to vote for its candidate) have gone from 13 percent in 1938 (Roper Poll) to 27 percent in 1967 (Gallup Poll) to 44 percent in 1983 (Harris Poll) to 58 percent in 1992 (Yankelovich Partners Poll) to 67 percent this year (USA TODAY/CNN/ Gallup Poll).

In the last decades, it has also become easier to run as an independent or a third-party candidate. Campaigns are now waged on television through advertisements and debates. Any person who can buy time on television has the potential to become a viable candidate even without a party endorsement or an elaborate organization. These structural changes help explain the success of Bernie Sanders in Vermont, Angus King in Maine, and Jesse Ventura in Minnesota. But Perot's remarkable showing was the product of very specific political circumstances. Like George Wallace in 1968, Perot was responding to concerns that the major parties had initially ignored or downplayed. With Wallace it was racial segregation; with Perot (and later the Reform Party) it was a more complex set of issues.

In running for president in 1992 and 1996, Perot spoke to two interrelated, but still distinguishable, constellations of concerns. One could be called economic nationalism; the other might be called antigovernment populism or libertarianism. Together, they constituted a politics, even a worldview, that defied the usual differences between liberals and conservatives- and between Demo crats and Republicans- and that commanded support from a large, identifiable group of voters. Let's take each of these strains in turn.


Economic Nationalism. In the late 1980s, many Americans came to believe that the country was suffering from a long-term economic decline that had been brought about by incompetent CEOs, corrupt government officials and lobbyists, and treacherous foreign companies and governments that were taking advantage of lax enforcement of Ameri can trade laws. This decline, thought to be concentrated in American manufacturing, was symbolized by the absence of American-made consumer electronic products, the apparent rout of the American semiconductor industry, and the purchase by Japanese companies of American sky scrapers and movie studios. The principal beneficiary of American decline was supposed to be Japan, which was thought to be displacing the United States as the chief economic power in the world.

This fear of economic decline inspired resentment toward the influx of immigrants, particularly from Latin America. Americans worried about these immigrants taking low-wage jobs, driving up welfare costs, and threatening the predominance of the English language. Many Americans also took umbrage at politicians like George Bush who seemed more concerned about Soviet relations than about the very real threats posed by America's economic competitors. Economic nationalists favored trade protection, regulation of foreign investment in the United States, limits on immigration, and, at the extremes, withdrawal from international institutions such as the United Nations and International Monetary Fund.

Antigovernment Populism. Ronald Reagan had encouraged the belief that the federal government was the principal cause of the country's economic woes, but by the late 1980s, popular distrust toward government had turned against Republican as well as Democratic officials and against the complex of lobbyists, policy groups, and public relations firms that went by the name "K Street." Americans saw Washington politicians as representing lobbyists and large campaign contri butors rather than their proper constituents. They believed that these politicians had become insulated from American life outside the Beltway and had acquired a vested interest in government spending, which had resulted in growing deficits that were creating mountainous debts American taxpayers would have to repay. Unlike many of the Reagan Republicans, the antigovernment populists also believed the government had become too intrusive and wanted it removed from their lives- not just from controlling gun purchases but also from restricting abortion or censoring art and entertainment. They favored campaign finance reform, term limits on legislators, restrictions on lobbyists, and a constitutional amendment for a balanced budget.

In those years, while there were Republicans like Representative Duncan Hunter and Democrats like Rep- re sen tative Marcy Kaptur who cham pioned some of these causes, no prominent politician embraced the underlying worldview. The presidential candidates in 1988 and the Bush ad ministration spurned the causes entirely, and in 1992, Bush and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton initially ignored them. Perot's surge in popularity and his brief sojourn to the top of opinion polls in the early summer were due in large part to his expressing eloquently- but also with some moderation- the preoccupations of economic nationalists and antigovernment populists. He criticized "junk bond salesmen" and "elected and appointed officials who see their terms of office as interim steps to high-paying lobbying jobs." He opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He promised to reduce the trade and budget deficits and to "make the words 'made in the U.S.A.' the world's standard of excellence once again," but he didn't call for abolishing the United Nations, eliminating gun control, or ending immi gration. That summer, Democrat Bill Clinton co-opted some of Perot's agenda, but if the Texan had not proved to be so erratic, even nutty, as a candidate, he might have given Clinton and Bush a real contest in the fall. Even so, he won a greater percentage of the vote than any third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.

Perot captured a distinct part of the population that the other parties had neglected. His voters tended to be young rather than old, male rather than female. In 1992, 65 percent of Perot's voters were high school graduates but not college graduates; 59 percent made between $15,000 and $50,000 a year. As political analyst Ruy Teixeira has pointed out, the old Democratic coalition has suffered for three decades from the defection of non- college-educated, middle-income white voters. What distinguished the Perot voters in 1992 and 1996 (and also the Ventura voters of 1998) is that, drawn by Perot's libertarian outlook, they tended to be younger than the Reagan Democrats and also somewhat less concentrated in the Rust Belt and the South. They were the next generation of Reagan Democrats.


After the 1992 election, Perot and the two organizations he spawned, United We Stand and the Reform Party, continued to address the same issues. So did Perot in his 1996 campaign. But the circumstances that triggered these concerns have changed dramatically in the past seven years. The economy has revived. Continued stagnation in Japan, along with its inability to compete with Intel and Microsoft, has stilled fears of Japan becoming number one. In short, Americans have become far more optimistic about their economic future- a change that began to register early in the summer of 1996 on the "right-track-wrong-track" polls that political consultants love to cite. After almost two decades of pessimism, 55 percent of Americans declared in October 1996 that the country was on the right track. This perception has, if anything, grown over the rest of the decade.

These changes have diminished the appeal of economic nationalism. Take immigration. In 1994 California passed the anti-immigration Proposition 187, and in April 1996, according to a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll, 50 percent of voters favored and 46 percent opposed a law that would suspend immigration for five years. By February 1999, only 39 percent favored such a law, and 58 percent opposed it. Anti government issues also suffered. In November 1994, the call for term limits had fueled the Republican victory in Congress- but by May 1997, when the Tarrance Group asked voters to identify "the most important issue Congress could deal with," term limits was at the very bottom of the list. Even the distrust of government has somewhat diminished. According to the NES, those who believe government is run for a "few big interests" have fallen from 76 percent in 1994, the all-time peak, to 64 percent in 1998.

These changes in perception transformed Perot's politics of the early 1990s into a dissenting faith with a diminishing number of adherents. In his 1996 campaign, Perot, sensing the difference, ran against Clinton administration corruption and for political reform. He stressed the budget deficit and the threat to Social Security rather than the trade deficit and still managed to win only 8.5 percent of the vote. In his successful gubernatorial campaign, on the other hand, Jesse Ventura ran as a combination of "New Democrat" and attenuated antigovernment populist. He emphasized fiscal responsibility and campaign reform. He did not even talk about immigration, trade, or the threat of multinational corporations. In fact while Ventura's political style was new, even refreshing, he was not very different in substance from neighboring Wisconsin Senator Russell Feingold. Once Ventura took office, he made former Democratic Congressman Tim Penny, an archetypal New Democrat, his chief economic adviser. (Penny himself can't decide whether to run for Senate in 2000 as a Democrat or as a member of the Reform Party.)


Look at the state organizations and the Reform Party candidates that plan to run in 2000, and you'll see an unstable compound that could easily explode into fragments. On one side are parties like those in Ventura's Minnesota or in neighboring Wisconsin that combine political reform with new Democratic or even old Democratic politics. They call to mind the turn-of-the-century Progressive Movement that stretched from New England across Minnesota to the Pacific Northwest. Ventura's party, for example, supports "the right of workers to organize demo-cratically, bargain collectively." Wisconsin's platform promises to "end corporate welfare" and to encourage a trade policy that will "promote American employ ment, labor standards, consumer safety and envi ron mental protection."

On the other side are the state Reform Party organizations and candidates that voice the extremes of economic nationalism and antigovernment populism. These members, who probably make up a majority of the party's several thousand activists, are reminiscent of the late-1940s Republicans who continued to advocate isolationism and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in the face of the Cold War and unchallengeable American economic superiority. Similarly the Reform Party isolationists have not adapted to the new circumstances of the late 1990s but have instead reiterated their call for ending immigration, restricting trade, establishing English as the official language, and withdrawing from the United Nations and international economic institutions. Pointing to the fall in blue-collar manufacturing jobs, they insist that America is still in economic decline and needs to "reindustrialize."

In his written platform, Florida congressional candidate Gerry Newby warns, "We have watched Attack after Attack on our Constitutional Rights, Political correctness on our Freedom of Speech, Search and Seizure disguised as the war on drugs, and now on the right to Keep and Bear Arms." The Florida party platform wants to "control immigration." Tom Loughlin, Jr., running for Senate in New York, wants to "demilitarize" the United Nations and abolish the income tax. Oregon's platform aims to ensure that the United Nations has "no legal status in the State of Oregon and to remove all UN presence immediately." (Get those black helicopters out of Portland International Airport!) Missouri's platform promises to "uphold U.S. sovereignty and allow no foreign authority over the U.S." Maine chairman Wendall Kinney advises us to "be patient for the discontent with our government will return when the full effects of NAFTA, GATT, and the loss of our manufacturing base [have] been felt by the people."

In truth the Ventura-progressive faction of the party could easily be absorbed into the larger Democratic Party coalition. And indeed some of the concerns voiced by the Paleolithic coalition can be found among liberal Demo crats and conservative Republicans. But taken as components of an overall worldview, these concerns are increasingly out of place not only in the Republican and Democratic parties but also in the American electorate. The Paleoliths represent a distinct- but not necessarily a viable- politics. Even an economic downturn would be unlikely to elevate them from a minor nuisance to a major player in American politics.


As the Reform Party enters the 2000 election, it faces a potentially crippling split between these two factions over the party's presidential candidate. If the Ventura faction triumphs and the party runs a moderate political reform candidate like former Governor Lowell Weicker, Jr., it could easily fail to get 5 percent of the vote, even with the benefit of $12.6 million in federal matching funds. If the party fails to get 5 percent, it may devolve after November 2000 into squabbling local parties and once again be only a virtual national organization. On the other hand, if Pat Buchanan wins the nomination, his campaign may invigorate many of the Paleolithic chapters. Through his notoriety, his skill as a speaker and debater, and his appeal to the Christian right, Buchanan could probably top 5 percent of the vote. (Perot's 1996 running mate Pat Choate thinks Buchanan will get at least 25 percent of the vote, but Buchanan's expressed sentiments on Jews, Hitler, Hispanics, the Confederacy, and the culture war will probably keep him under double digits.)

No matter how many votes Buchanan gets, however, his candidacy would deeply split the organization. Buchanan represents the dark side of economic nationalism. He wants to restrict immigration because he sees dark-skinned former peasants as a threat to the hegemony of white America. He is an America-first isolationist who would withdraw from the United Nations. With his opposition to abortion rights and his support for government censorship, he embraces the authoritarian rather than libertarian strain of antigovernment populism. He would probably drive the Ventura progressives out of the Reform Party and strengthen those elements within the party that are living firmly in the past. Under Buchanan, the Reform Party would become a replica of Wallace's old American Independence Party, which survived two elections after Wallace's stunning success in 1968 but finally collapsed from the weight of its own irrelevance. It would become a party with a real national office but only a virtual constituency.

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