For sheer entertainment, there will be nothing quite like the scrap over the presidential nomination of the Reform Party. Ross, Pat, Jesse, The Donald and who knows who else will be doing their back-stabbing in private, making loud noises in public, and claiming their whole act is a "populist" exercise in democracy. Pro wrestling may look authentic by comparison.
The Reform Party is not a party in any conventional sense. It arose as the vehicle for the ambitions of Ross Perot and was built with his money. Formally democratic, its inner workings are not ruled by regular party primaries. A lot depends on who shows up at which meeting, and what rules that particular group decides to write.
Reform does speak for real political causes. But it speaks in many different voices. Its supporters want to overthrow the two-party system. But they don't agree on why.
Think of Reform as a party of radicals and radical moderates. The radicals are very sympathetic to Pat Buchanan's hostility to free trade, his dark view of "a new world order," his anti-Wall Street rhetoric. The radical moderates mostly dislike the two-party system because they see Republicans and Democrats yelling at each other rather than governing. They think parties get in the way of reasonable government.
In 1992 Ross Perot spoke for both tendencies and brought together three broad streams of voters. Think of them as the Volvo, the Buick and the Chevy truck drivers.
The Volvo drivers, located primarily in New England and the Pacific Northwest, appreciated Perot's calls to end the deficit, and admired the late Paul Tsongas's early crusade against red ink. The Buick drivers, who hail from the big industrial states of the Midwest, hated what free trade was doing to the older industries that had nurtured their regions. The Chevy truck drivers, in the Mountain States especially, hated Washington and identified with the "sagebrush rebellion" against all of big government's works.
The desire of these groups to voice protest won Perot 19 percent of the vote in 1992. But they were destined not to get along. And the power of their issues has abated. The Volvoites don't have the deficit to worry about anymore. Many Chevy truck folks became part of the Republican Revolution in 1994. The Buick drivers still worry about trade, but the improved economy has taken some sting out of their cause.
The party might have remained a Perot plaything but for Jesse Ventura, who used its ballot line to make himself governor of Minnesota. Ventura is a spokesman for the party's radical moderate wing. His campaign rhetoric last year was about the futility of partisan combat and the irrelevance of Republicans and Democrats, not about the New World Order. Ventura's appeal was especially to the young. He spoke as an old-style reformer promising "good government" independent of "the special interests."
One Minnesota Republican explains why Ventura is hard for outsiders to understand: There's a great difference, he says, between the way Ventura presents himself and the way he governs. Ventura's public persona is that of the outrageous, flamboyant swashbuckler. Body slam politics makes Ventura look radical. But his governing style is middle-of-the-road. In government, he's relied on moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans who could serve comfortably in a lot of administrations.
Shortly after he was elected, for example, Ventura sought counsel from former U.S. representative Tim Penny, a moderately conservative Democrat who made his name in Washington as a soft-spoken, straight-talking deficit hawk. It's hard to imagine someone more different from either Ross Perot or Pat Buchanan than Tim Penny.
Ventura wants the Reform Party to reflect the same vision. (He also, of course, wants to run for president in 2004 without having Buchanan in his way). Note that Ventura's choice for the party's nomination was Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, once a moderate-to-liberal Republican whose approach as an independent governor was similar to Ventura's. Now Ventura has turned to Donald Trump, a shrewd move. Trump is one person who can match Perot dollar for dollar if the fight comes down to money. That would be ironic in a party committed to campaign finance reform.
Perot, in the meantime, edges toward Buchanan, proving that his deepest political commitments are those he outlined in his now famous debate over NAFTA with Vice President Gore: the fear of the "giant sucking sound" of jobs heading south to Mexico.
At the moment, Perot and Buchanan seem to have the upper hand in organizational terms. But it's hard to handicap a game in which all the rules are subject to change. If nothing else, the raucous Reformers will remind us that while it's entertaining to trash the Republicans and Democrats, it's much harder to decide how (or with what) they should be replaced.