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Reform’s Identity Crisis

Michael J. Ring

Quick. What do Lowell Weicker, Donald Trump, Warren Beatty, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, and Jesse Ventura have in common?

Ego? Well, yes, but besides that, what else?

The six men above are the “leaders” of the Reform Party or rumored-to-be Reform Party candidates for President of the United States.

As you can see, the Reform Party has an identity crisis. It’s not focusing attention on its platform themes of good-government reforms and economic nationalism and instead is becoming marginalized as a party of celebrity candidates and disgruntled politicians.

Recent escapades have made the party look like a campaign circus. Ventura has been more media star than politician. At the Reform Party’s convention this year, the titanic egos of Ventura and Perot stepped into the ring and the governor, adamant that Perot step aside and that the Reform Party nominate a new candidate in 2000, wrestled his way to victory. Ventura and his faction of the party have floated the names of Weicker, a former independent governor of Connecticut, and billionaire developer Trump as potential Reform Party presidential candidates.

Then there’s the liberal actor Beatty, who is unhappy with the Democratic field of Gore and Bradley. He’s made rumblings about running for president, perhaps as a Democrat, perhaps under the Reform Party banner.

Finally, we have Buchanan, the conservative pit bull striking fear into the hearts of moderate Republicans everywhere with rumors of a third-party bid. Buchanan’s presidential campaign in the Republican Party hasn’t caught fire, and the media commentator is unhappy with Republican frontrunner George W. Bush’s positions on a host of issues from Kosovo to abortion litmus tests to free trade. Thus he’s lunging for the exit, stage right.

The Reform Party has apparently become all things to all would-be candidates. The Ventura faction, promoting Trump or Weicker, sees it as a libertarian, fiscally conservative but socially liberal organization. To Beatty, the Reform Party looks like an organ to revitalize traditional liberalism in American politics. Buchanan sees the party as a home for his special brand of “America First” policies on trade, foreign affairs, and immigration.

The fight for the Reform Party’s nomination, suddenly in great demand, could turn very ugly, very quickly. Buchanan is the most recognizable candidate and has a deeply loyal following, but the Ventura faction doesn’t want a social conservative as the Reform Party’s nominee, and will probably use Pat’s paper trail of wacky, extreme statements against him.

Such personality-driven politics is nothing new for the Reform Party. Remember its standard-bearer in the past two elections was Perot, the diminutive Texan whose visions of self-aggrandizement couldn’t fit even in the Lone Star State.

Launching a new third party in the United States is difficult enough; large electoral districts, a first-past-the-post voting system, the “big tent” mentality of each of the two parties, and the importance of money in our campaign system all hinder third-party efforts. But the Reform Party today is suffering from another ailment potentially lethal to all third parties: an era of good feelings. Third party candidates are most successful at times of economic (Perot, 1992) or social (George Wallace, 1968) strife. Neither condition exists in America today. Most voters today don’t see a need for change from the two-party structure. And those that do aren’t likely to be amused by the Reform Party’s buffoonery.

The current state of the Reform Party is unfortunate, since the party has a lot to offer America. In 1992 Perot focused much of that campaign’s attention on the deficit, and with members of both parties eager to raid the budget surplus America could use a few sermons from a deficit hawk. Second, unless lightning strikes, both the Democratic and Republican candidates for president will support “free” trade initiatives like NAFTA and GATT. The Reform Party, which opposes these agreements, needs to remind us about American workers in industries such as autos and steel, forced to compete with the illegal trading schemes of other nations.

Here’s hoping for a smooth, bloodless Reform Party nomination contest. The party has too much to offer American politics to risk becoming a three-ring circus.