Reform: It Takes All Kinds

It looks as if Pat Buchanan will bolt the Republican Party to raise his pitchfork with the Reform Party. He should not get the Reform nomination without a fight.

Buchanan reflects many of the Reform Party's concerns about "free trade," the flight of blue-collar jobs overseas, the increasing power of multinational corporations and the surrender of American sovereignty. Also, as A.V. Krebs notes on page 7, Buchanan, with his "Farmer's Bill of Rights," is one of the few candidates with a credible farm policy and he is the only one with a populist approach to the crisis facing family farmers in the United States. However, his positions on social issues such as abortion and his call for "culture war" repel many Reformers as well as other moderate Americans and distract from his positions on economic issues.

Reform Party founder Ross Perot reportedly is encouraging Buchanan, but as much as I'd like to see Buchanan strip 10 or 15 percent of the vote away from the Republican nominee in the general election, his carrying the Reform banner would not be best for the long-term interest of the Reform Party or reform in general.

The Reform Party is just getting over Perot, whose ego and money built the party and left it with a ballot line in 21 states, $12.6 million in federal matching funds and an opportunity to raise issues that the Republicans and Democrats won't touch.

Commentators from the mainstream media are able to dismiss Buchanan as a social reactionary and an isolationist who veers on the brink of racism. His nomination would cause most moderate and progressive populists to write off the Reform Party. The party would be better off with a candidate who could articulate the arguments against "free trade" and for the rights of American workers without resorting to slurs against Jews, Chinese, Latinos or other ethnic groups.

The now-and-again right-wing columnist and TV commentator has a penchant for zingers in his pronouncements on public policy. Examples include his call at the 1992 Republican convention for a "culture war" to be waged by the right, his defense of Nazi war criminals and Holocaust revisionism, his Jew-baiting and recently his proposal to close America's southern borders and deny statehood to Puerto Rico while opening our northern borders -- even offering statehood to renegade Canadian provinces. Urging immigration reform, he proclaimed, "Jose, we ain't gonna let you in again!" and, fulminating on foreign policy, he promised that if China does not open up to U.S. trade, it will have sold its "last pair of chopsticks in any mall in the United States of America."

Those lines may get cheers in some quarters, but they undermine his image as a populist contender for the White House. Populism should not be a politics of division. Indeed the strength of populism should be its ability to reach across ethnic groups and regional borders to bring people together for their common good.

Many commentators seem to believe that the Reform nomination would be Buchanan's for the asking. However, many Reformers are uncomfortable with Buchanan's rightwing views on social issues. Some of them fled the Republican Party because of its rightward lurch, and they hope to position Reform as a centrist alternative to the Republicans.

Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who as the only Reform Party statewide officeholder has nudged aside Perot as the party's de facto leader, reportedly does not think Buchanan would be the best standard-bearer. Instead, Ventura has been promoting former Connecticut independent Governor Lowell Weicker and New York dealmaker Donald Trump.

Weicker served three terms in the U.S. Senate as a moderate Republican (and beat George W. Bush's uncle, Prescott Bush Jr., in a 1982 GOP primary) before being unseated in 1988 by Democrat Joseph Lieberman. In 1990 Weicker came back to be elected governor as an independent, defeating, as Salon's Bruce Shapiro noted, a younger Republican who promised ill-defined conservative compassion and a Democrat who was too beholden to the party's funders and power-brokers to run a vital campaign. Weicker supports campaign finance reform and debt reduction over tax reduction, but his staunch support for free trade makes him suspect in the Reform Party, as well as his call to ban handgun ownership.

Ventura's courting of Trump is inexplicable for a party that stands for cleaning up campaign finance laws and the elimination of the influence of lobbyists and special interests. Trump is a real estate developer who built his career largely on lavish bipartisan campaign contributions in the 1980s that resulted in massive tax breaks that helped him develop Grand Hyatt, Trump Tower and other properties. About the only thing that could be said in Trump's favor is that he could pay his own way, as Perot did.

A better Reform candidate would be Ralph Nader, who reportedly is considering another run for president. In 1996, running as the Green Party candidate and receiving virtually no press coverage, he received 684,902 votes, only 0.71 percent of the total, but he finished fourth, behind Perot. Of course, the notoriously frugal consumer advocate spent less than $5,000 on the campaign. As readers of his column in The Progressive Populist will recognize, he agrees with most of the Reform Party's economic platform and carries little of the baggage on social issues. In fact, he took some flak in 1996 for his reluctance to be drawn into debates on gay rights and other social issues.

Reform Party rules call for the nominee to be selected by mail ballot next July. The party is on the ballot in 21 states, and party rules require presidential candidates to collect signatures to qualify the party for the ballot in other states. The Reform Party must gain 5 percent of the popular vote to maintain its $12.6 million share of FEC funding for 2004. Buchanan is showing double-digit support as the hypothetical Reform candidate in surveys. But any qualified candidate with $25 million to spend on a campaign that features straight talk on fair trade, campaign finance reform, fiscal responsibility, environmental protection, sustainable agriculture and access to health care ought to be able to get well beyond the 5 percent threshold they need to hold onto federal matching funds. If they put up the right candidate -- and there is room in the Reform Party for a progressive populist candidate -- the voters might surprise the pundits again, like they did last November with Jesse Ventura in Minnesota.

Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., got the House of Representatives on September 14 again to pass the campaign finance reform bill, only to turn it over to Senators Russell Feingold, D-Wisc., and John McCain, R-Ariz., for a much more uncertain future. The first act of Feingold and McCain was to drop one of the key elements of their bill -- the regulation of so-called "issue advocacy'' advertising by special interest groups.

McCain and Feingold pulled the teeth from the Senate version in the hope of making it acceptable to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who have blocked previous attempts to get campaign reforms through the Senate.

The House bill already was relatively weak but the Republicans have made it clear they are not going to give up their advantage in "issue advocacy'' ads, which allow monied special interest groups to get around the limits on campaign contributions by running their own independent attack ads.

The new version of McCain-Feingold, while weaker, would ban the unlimited donations to political parties known as "soft money'' contributions. It is a start, and it appears that nothing more meaningful will get passed while Lott and McConnell command leadership positions in the Senate. The real cure -- public financing of campaigns -- will have to wait for a new Congress that is convinced that there is a problem with the way we sell our elected officials to the highest bidders. Changing that mindset is up to the rest of us.

-- Jim Cullen

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