CHANGE SPRINGS from surprising places in America's decentralized political system. Barely a single congressman is prepared to endorse drug legalization, but a handful of determined activists have skillfully used ballot initiatives to decriminalize medical marijuana in five states. A large group in Congress bows to the tobacco lobby, but a lawsuit filed in tiny Pascagoula, Miss., started a legal bandwagon that led to last year's settlement between the tobacco companies and the states. Now some members of Congress are dragging their feet on campaign finance reform, but they may just conceivably be outflanked by Warren Beatty.
Warren Beatty? This movie actor-producer is not everyone's idea of a political savior. He rails against money in politics, though his own political stature is based on wealth and celebrity. He wishes that America's political debate were more substantive, but substance is not exactly a Hollywood hallmark. Mr. Beatty's recent movie-manifesto, "Bulworth," seemed to suggest that the alternative to money politics lies in the crude rhetoric of class warfare. Pundits have parsed a recent Beatty op-ed column, but remain mystified as to what on earth it meant.
Agreed, the messenger is far from perfect. But that makes the message more powerful in its way. Despite Mr. Beatty's flaws, people talk about a Beatty presidential candidacy because they are desperate for someone -- anyone -- to shake up the system. The explosion of money in politics revolts most citizens, and a majority in Congress favors modest countermeasures. But the Republican leadership aims to frustrate reform with parliamentary trickery.
Back in 1912 Teddy Roosevelt's failed third-party presidential bid created the momentum for the progressive reforms that he had favored. In 1992 Ross Perot's run for the White House put deficit reduction at the top of the national agenda. In 2000 it might just take a Beatty candidacy to slay the money beast. It's a long shot, to be sure. But members of Congress should take the hint from the Beatty boomlet and get serious about campaign reform. Otherwise somebody, from somewhere, may one day grab the issue from them.