Ballot Box

Beatty vs. Buchanan?

For David Plotz’s “Assessment” of Warren Beatty, click here.

Third parties, as the saying goes, are like bees: They sting and then they die. Independent presidential candidates succeed in America not by winning elections but by influencing the two major parties to adopt their positions. Thus Teddy Roosevelt, who lost the election of 1912 as a Progressive, was nonetheless effective in the sense that both the Democrats and the Republicans borrowed his policies. Another example of this phenomenon is George Wallace’s 1968 presidential bid, which encouraged the GOP to woo disenchanted Democrats in the South.

Ross Perot conforms to this pattern as well. His big issue in 1992 was the budget deficit. By raising the topic relentlessly, he encouraged Bill Clinton and George Bush to address it during the campaign. The fact that Perot received 19 percent of the vote was an inducement to Clinton to stick with deficit reduction once in office. For this reason, Perot deserves a share of the credit for the healthy condition of the economy today.

But Perot chose not to declare victory and go home. In 1996, he ran again, this time putting his opposition to free-trade agreements front and center. As a result of his strong performance in ‘92, he was eligible to receive $29 million in public financing. Perot did far less well the second time around, getting only 8.5 percent of the vote. But that percentage still entitles the Reform Party nominee to a federal subsidy of $12.6 million in the 2000 election.

“It’s a huge pot of honey that’s going to attract a lot of flies,” says Russ Verney, the outgoing national chairman and a close Perot ally. Among those buzzing around recently have been political oddballs who seem to hail from altogether different planets: Pat Buchanan, Ralph Nader, Donald Trump, Lowell Weicker, and Warren Beatty.

If none of them has yet taken the plunge, it may be because there’s a small catch to the cash, namely the Reform Party itself, which has come to resemble the British Monster Raving Loony Party without the self-conscious theatricality. Reports from the Reform Party’s recent convention in Dearborn, Mich., conveyed a fragrant whiff of Bedlam. The party’s delegates included followers of the Marxist Lenora Fulani, members of the right-wing Patriot Party, no-tax libertarians, and other miscellaneous extremists and wackos. According to the Washington Post, the party’s chairman-elect, Jack Gargan, is stockpiling weapons at his home in a remote part of the Florida Keys in anticipation of the global depression he thinks will result from a Y2K catastrophe. In short, the Reform Party is both run and overrun by people who make Ross Perot look sane and rational.

As Verney says, it’s unlikely that the $12 million will be left on the table. But in this unstable environment, no one can predict whether that stake will be used to whack the Democrats from the left or the Republicans from the right–or to squeeze a Weicker-type centrist into the narrow space between an Al Gore and a George W. Bush. For potential candidates, the only vague requirements are a commitment to political reforms like term limits, a belief in fiscal discipline, and skepticism about free trade. Even these points may be negotiable.

At last month’s convention in Dearborn, Perot lost control of the party and thus the implied power to be or choose its nominee. Gargan, who encouraged Perot to enter the presidential race back in 1992 and subsequently fell out with him, defeated Perot’s candidate, Pat Benjamin, to replace Verney as party chairperson.

Gargan won with the endorsement of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, the Reform Party’s only elected official and Perot’s rival as unofficial leader. Ventura’s interest is in keeping a seat warm until he’s ready to run for president himself. To stand as an independent in 2004, he needs to make sure the Reform Party gets at least 5 percent of the vote in 2000, which would entitle it to a public subsidy once again.

Press reports have portrayed Gargan as the Body’s man. But Micah Sifry, who is writing a book on third parties, tells me that Gargan isn’t simply a Ventura shill. This means that while Perot probably won’t be able to rig the results of the nominating process as he did against former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm last time around, Ventura isn’t automatically the kingmaker either. What’s likely is a bitter battle between Perot and Ventura, conducted through proxies, their respective stand-ins for the Reform Party presidential nominee.

Perot’s favorite candidate at the moment appears to be Buchanan, who has made noises about bolting the GOP and joining the Reform Party. Buchanan was the hit of the United We Stand Convention in 1995 and enjoys good relations with Perot. Buchanan also traveled to Minnesota in June to kiss Ventura’s ring. The two said nice things about each other after their session, but Buchanan didn’t win Ventura’s blessing. Ventura is a libertarian on social issues. He’s not only strongly pro-choice on abortion and sympathetic to drug legalization but has come out in favor of gay marriage, which would seem to rule out Buchanan as his candidate. He has since criticized Buchanan directly and encouraged Weicker to run for the Reform Party’s nomination.

Weicker has yet to declare his intentions. In the meantime, Ventura is pursuing the Bulworth option. A source knowledgeable about the Reform Party tells me that media consultant Bill Hillsman, who made Ventura’s clever TV spots in 1998, is meeting with Beatty this week on the West Coast. It’s a savvy choice of emissary: Hillsman, who made ads for Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone before signing on with Ventura, is even closer to Beatty’s liberal-populist politics than Ventura is. Hillsman couldn’t be reached for comment. But I’d wager he’s telling Beatty about how the disaffected voters who turned out to elect Ventura might be mobilized in a national campaign.

If Perot successfully woos Buchanan and Ventura convinces Beatty to run, next year’s Reform Party nominating convention might be the most entertaining sideshow of the 2000 campaign. How do you describe the ideology of people trying to decide whether they want Pat Buchanan or Warren Beatty to be president? I’d call them mad as hell–in more senses that one.