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Unhostile Takeover

Ross Perot's reform party is about to do something no third party has done in a century: transcend its founder. And it will be thanks to Pat Buchanan. Although Buchanan won't give either major candidate a scare in this year's presidential election, he'll probably line up enough disenchanted social conservatives, blue-collar workers threatened by imports, and disillusioned independents to win 7,000,000 votes. That would give him five percent of the popular vote--enough to qualify the Reform Party for federal money again in 2004, as well as an automatic place on the ballot in many states.

But the Reform Party will pay a price for survival. And that price will be Buchanan's lasting influence. "What you have seen--there is no doubt about it--is a Buchananization of the Reform Party," the candidate told me on the eve of the Pennsylvania party's June 10 convention. He's absolutely right. Under Buchanan's influence, the Reform Party is drifting from the socially tolerant, good-government identity of its infancy to a darker place occupied in the late '60s by George Wallace's American Independent Party and in the nineteenth century by the Know-Nothings. Buchanan is bringing into the party new members from the Christian Coalition and hardline GOP caucuses like Missouri's Republican Assembly, and in so doing he is splitting state organizations and expunging the party's old guard.

Nobody understands this better than the old guard itself. Veterans of the Perot campaigns are apoplectic, and they blame Buchanan himself--not merely, they say, because he is betraying Perot's vision but because he is betraying the promises he made to them when he decided to run last fall. "Here is somebody you invite over to your house," complains Russell Verney, the former chairman of the Reform Party, "and the first thing they do is start evicting you." Verney and the others are right about what is happening, but they are letting themselves off too easily in their explanations why. In truth, Buchanan didn't steal the Reform Party's soul. He purchased it, using his name recognition as currency. And it was Perot veterans like Verney who presided over the transaction, out of sheer desperation to survive.

Successful third-party candidacies depend on two things: a charismatic leader and a collage of troubling issues that the major parties are determined either to ignore or to view one-sidedly. In 1968, for example, Wallace focused his inflammatory oratory on racial integration and government spending on minorities, expressing an anger many Americans felt but neither party would articulate. In 1992, Perot played a similar role--channeling popular frustration with economic decline, political corruption, and government incompetence. Many politicians had spoken to one or the other of these concerns. Democrats, for instance, railed against corporate greed, campaign finance abuse, and Japan's unfair trade practices, while Republicans attacked budget deficits and "big government." But no one combined them and summed them up as powerfully as Perot did.

But while Perot, like Wallace, tapped into popular frustrations, he had one major advantage over his third-party predecessor. Whereas Wallace was avowedly a politician of the extreme right, Perot hailed from the political center. He opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but he was not anti-immigrant. He was pro-choice and had a commendable record on civil rights and education in Texas. If not for his erratic personality, he might have actually challenged for the presidency in November.

In 1996, even though he had lost half his issues, Perot was still a recognizable political presence. America's economic rebound and Japan's nosedive undercut his message of economic nationalism. But Perot could still run on a centrist platform of government reform, campaign finance regulation, balanced budgets, and the rescue of Social Security and Medicare. With the Clinton administration plunged into scandal and the Republicans identified with corporate special-interest groups, this set of issues was sufficiently distinctive to garner Perot eight percent of the vote. If the debate commission, which is controlled by the two parties, had not excluded him, Perot could have won double that and earned his party millions of dollars more this year.

Further proof of the Reform Party's enduring appeal came in 1998, when Jesse Ventura won the Minnesota governorship on a similar reform platform (minus the economic nationalism). Ventura's success appeared to demonstrate that if the Reform Party could field credible--and, even better, highly original--candidates, it could establish itself as the party of government reform. Even if it never supplanted either of the major parties, it could substantially influence them--as the campaign-reform-oriented campaigns of Bill Bradley and John McCain seemed to suggest.

And yet the last two years have been, by any standard, difficult ones for the Reform Party. Romantics like to envisage third parties as bottom-up institutions whose local success provides the foundation for their national prominence. In fact, the opposite is historically true: third parties have depended on presidential elections for their success. In presidential elections, third parties can exploit openings created when the major parties, driven by their constituency groups, ignore or slight important issues--in ways that local Democratic and Republican candidates, more in tune with local idiosyncrasy, rarely do. As a result, third parties tend to flounder between presidential-election years.

That is what happened to the Reform Party. After 1996, most state Reform Party organizations outside Minnesota atrophied. In 1998, the party ran House candidates in just 16 states and Senate candidates in only eight, with no candidate getting even two percent of the vote. In Iowa, when its gubernatorial candidate failed to receive two percent of the vote, the Reform Party lost its ballot status. In Pennsylvania, one of the original Reform Party states, members couldn't even gather the 36,000 signatures necessary to get their gubernatorial and Senate candidates on the ballot.

And so, as the 2000 presidential election approached, party leaders knew they desperately needed a presidential candidate who could inspire the party's base and secure its funding and ballot access. The obvious choice was Ventura, but, while he made no secret of his desire to run in 2004, he insisted on keeping his pledge to Minnesota voters not to run in 2000. Ventura, in turn, tried to convince former Connecticut Governor Lowell Weicker and millionaire Donald Trump to run. But the Reform Party leaders in Dallas, locked in a bitter, issueless power struggle with Ventura over who would control the party, wanted nothing to do with anyone the Minnesota governor recruited. They began frantically casting about for a candidate of their own.

Enter Buchanan. By last September, he was growing amenable to quitting the GOP. His Republican presidential campaign had fizzled. In contrast to 1992 and 1996, in 2000 he had to share the social conservative vote--with Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, and Alan Keyes. Only his protectionism distinguished him, and the economic boom had left most Republicans indifferent to it.

With its $12.6 million in federal campaign funding, the Reform Party offered Buchanan a chance to sustain his cause and his presidential ambitions. So he began meeting with Verney and Pat Choate, Perot's 1996 vice presidential candidate. They, in turn, arranged meetings with other Reform Party leaders: Donna Donovan from Connecticut and Patricia Benjamin from New Jersey, as well as left-wing-sect leader Lenora Fulani, who had influence in New York and several other Eastern and Midwestern states. In October, Buchanan agreed to run, and the Reform Party leaders agreed to support him.

Verney and the others weren't blind to their ideological differences with Buchanan. Verney is a former New Hampshire Democrat; Choate is a former adviser to Richard Gephardt and the House Democratic leadership. Although both men agreed with Buchanan on trade and although Choate was a personal friend, they were ideologically closer to Ralph Nader. But they agreed to look the other way, on the theory that Buchanan would use the party merely as a means of running for president. They expected Buchanan to distinguish, in Verney's words, between "the need for a campaign" and "the obligation of running a political party." Buchanan and his staff would worry about the campaign and leave the Reform Party to Verney and the others. Buchanan's run would keep the party from losing its public funding and ballot access; after November, Verney and other party leaders figured, they could recruit a different, perhaps more moderate, candidate for 2004.

They figured wrong. Buchanan and his sister Bay, who manages his campaign, are taking over the Reform Party state by state. In some states, like Pennsylvania, where the leadership already backed Buchanan, the takeover has been amicable. At last week's convention at the Bucks County Sheraton, there was not a murmur of dissent on delegate selection. But in other states the Buchanan forces have resembled, in national party Treasurer Tom McLaughlin's words, "a Viking raiding party." In New Hampshire, Buchanan recruited former Christian Coalition Chairwoman Shelly Uscinski to run his state campaign and to bring a voting majority to the state Reform Party convention. When the handful of existing Reform Party members tried to block her, Uscinski set up her own Reform Party. Similar events have taken place in Iowa, Wisconsin, Virginia, and Colorado. Some of these states will send rival delegations to the Reform Party convention in Long Beach, California, this August.

The Reform Party elders also figured wrong on the substance of Buchanan's campaign. They expected him to emphasize those issues on which they agreed--economic nationalism and campaign finance reform--while downplaying his conservative social agenda. He has done nothing of the sort. Campaign finance reform has vanished from his platform. He did not mention it in either of the two lengthy speeches he gave at last week's Pennsylvania convention. Pat Benjamin, former vice chairwoman of the New Jersey Reform Party and a strong campaign-finance-reform advocate, says, "He doesn't talk about it at all. When I met with him in September, I asked him to look at that issue and say things about it, and he hasn't."

Instead, Buchanan has prominently featured his views on abortion, education, immigration, homosexuality, and the Confederate flag. I can see little difference between what he said in his past campaigns and what he said in speeches and in an interview in Pennsylvania last week. He is as personally affable as ever and displays a generous sympathy for workers whom the new economy has bypassed, but in his public utterances he is the same holy terror who demonizes Mexican immigrants and calls down God on his enemies. In his speech to the Pennsylvania Reform Party, he spoke about an 82-year-old widow he met on the Arizona border, terrorized by "illegal aliens" who poison cattle and who, he claimed, have killed her guard dogs by throwing them meat filled with broken glass. "This lady is an American, she loves her country, and she lives in a maximum-security prison in her own house because the United States does not have the courage to defend the borders of the United States," Buchanan intoned.

Buchanan's lust for culture war seems every bit as strong today as it was at the Republican convention in Houston in 1992. When I asked him about a column he wrote this spring defending the Confederate flag and attacking those who drag "Jefferson's name ... through the gutter," he launched into a tirade. "It is part of an overall cultural war," Buchanan said. "It entails first the dethroning of the Old and the New Testament, and the removal of religious and Biblical instruction for public institutions, the undermining of the religious beliefs that are based on that faith which is being systematically done, and demythologizing the heroes of the past. It is basically the deconstruction of America. We have to stand up for it."

Reform party leaders claim Buchanan misled them--and, when it comes to his campaign's ideological direction, they are right. Donovan and Benjamin recall a fall meeting at Choate's apartment in Washington, D.C., at which Buchanan told them he would run on economic issues and campaign finance reform and would "table" social issues, putting them "on the back burner." When I asked Buchanan about this, he didn't deny making such a statement but said that in his declaration of candidacy he was clear about his commitment to social issues. But even that isn't true. He devoted almost all of that speech to trade and foreign policy, mentioning his opposition to abortion only in the subordinate clause of a single sentence.

Buchanan also assured Reform Party leaders he would not change the party's platform. Yet in April he told the right-wing weekly Human Events that he wanted to create "a socially conservative party" to replace the old Reform Party and that he would "append to the platform a personal statement of my convictions and beliefs about life and other social, cultural, and moral issues, and my commitment to appoint only pro-life justices to the Supreme Court." When I asked him about this, Buchanan insisted that such a statement will not affect the platform itself. But Verney says, justifiably, that it is a "distinction without a difference." Indeed, in his fund-raising speech in Pennsylvania, Buchanan touted himself as "the most pro-life candidate in the race." Donna Donovan's verdict on Buchanan and his sister seems right: "They want to own the party and build it as a right-wing, pro-life alternative for people that are currently chafing in the Republican Party."

Still, if Buchanan was less than forthcoming in his early conversations with Reform Party leaders, those leaders are also guilty of deceiving themselves. After all, Buchanan and his sister had every reason to seek control of the tottering Reform Party. In the party's constitution, two-thirds of the delegates to the national convention can overturn a primary nomination. Why wouldn't Buchanan try to ensure that he gets a majority of the convention delegates selected by the state parties? It was also predictable that Buchanan would want delegates to present a unified front at the Long Beach convention, which will be televised, and that he would want state parties to help him get on the ballot and gain visibility in the fall.

Verney, Donovan, and Benjamin no longer nourish illusions about Buchanan. Verney is now trying to prevent the party from endorsing anyone. Donovan says she will probably vote for Ralph Nader in November. But other Reform Party leaders continue to look the other way. Daniel Martino, who is running for the Pennsylvania state legislature on the Reform Party ticket, told me, "We're not about an issue or a candidate. Pat Buchanan gets us the five percent. We'll have federal funds for 2004, and I hope that by then other individuals will step forward who are not as conservative as Pat Buchanan." Still others take an almost surrealistic view of Buchanan's candidacy. Mel Kaplan of the Poconos, who is not happy about it but unwilling to make a fuss, quipped, "I'd love to see him elected. It would be good for the party, but it would be terrible for the country."

Of course, if Buchanan does get his five percent--and manages to retain control of the Reform Party after November--he might discover that it is much easier to organize a presidential campaign than it is to keep a third party going between elections. Many of the Christian conservatives he recruited will go back to the GOP, where they can wield influence locally, if not nationally. Many of the independents who are still harboring false hopes about a centrist party of government reform will also leave. Under Buchanan, a right-wing Reform Party could suffer the same fate as Wallace's American Independent Party, which went from 13.5 percent of the vote in 1968 to 0.21 percent in 1976 to 0.05 percent in 1980--the same percentage garnered that year by Communist Party challenger Gus Hall. That wouldn't be very good for the Reform Party, but it would be good for the country.