The Reform Party wild card

The second-most asked political question of the past month, next to "Did you ever use cocaine, Governor Bush?" was this one: "How can Pat Buchanan and Warren Beatty both be interested in becoming the Reform Party candidate for president?"

Some presume the answer will tell us something (negative) about the Reform Party such as, "it doesn't stand for anything, so its presidential candidate can come from anywhere on the ideological spectrum." However ill-informed this presumption might be, it's worth pursuing the flipside of the question.

If Mr. Buchanan - perhaps the paradigmatic spokesman for social conservatism and the American Right - and Mr. Beatty - an equally paradigmatic representative of 1960s liberalism and the American Left - both "go Reform," what does that say about the Republican and Democratic parties? (Not to mention what it says about the liberal/conservative paradigm.)

Buchanan is interested in the Reform Party for some obvious reasons. The Republicans are careening toward the political center, hoping that George W. will do for them what William J. did for the Democrats - namely, recast and reposition them at the center, with the extremists standing quietly in the background, as Jesse Jackson did for Mr. Clinton. But unlike Mr. Jackson, Buchanan doesn't see himself as window dressing for compassionate conservatism. Thus, the Reform Party seems like a good exit strategy.

But the Reform Party, contrary to the pundits' notion that it stands for nothing, has embraced the quite specific philosophy of non-ideological political reform. The Reformers, diverse as they are, believe that if the process is rotten, the policy is going to stink. So reform of the political process is the threshold issue that must be tackled to clean up special-interest control of policymaking. Easing restrictions on voter registration and ballot access; enacting term limits, campaign finance and debate reform; and introducing legislative reforms like initiative and referendum and unicameral state governments are fundamentals of Reform's program to level the playing field and recreate American democracy in a populist, non-ideological mode.

Thus, Buchanan faces an interesting hurdle. He might make a move to Reform wanting to carry his social conservatism with him (kind of like a portable 401K) but the Reform Party not only doesn't subscribe to social conservative ideology, it rejects ideology altogether. Buchanan may leave the GOP for one reason. But if he goes Reform, it will have to be for another.

This naturally brings us to Beatty. In his 1967 movie, "Bonnie and Clyde," Beatty (playing bank robber Clyde Barrow) stages a hold-up to impress Faye Dunaway (Bonnie). After the getaway, he takes her out for a hamburger and, as they leave the luncheonette, Beatty jumps into a car that is a fancier, shinier model than his own.

"Hey, that ain't ours!" Bonnie exclaims.

"Sure it is," he replies.

Bonnie is confused. "But we came in this one," she says.

Clyde responds, "That don't mean we have to go home in it."

If Beatty proceeds with a campaign for the Reform nomination, he may want to take Clyde's advice. He comes into the presidential race with a lot of Left ideological baggage. He acknowledges he's a "bleeding heart celebrity." And he, too, has castigated his party - the Democratic Party - for abandoning its ideology. He may decide to seek the Reform nomination because of that.

But, as Clyde told Bonnie, beginning a journey in one car doesn't mean having to continue in that same car. If Beatty tries to ride in the same car, he'll certainly be shot down by the Reform Party, which has no truck with his, or anyone's, ideology.

Ironically, Beatty and Buchanan will have to abandon their polar-opposite ideological agendas and seek out roughly the same ground - political reform - if they're to be competitive for the Reform nomination. Some call this "backburnering," meaning sacrificing particular issues for the purpose of getting the Reform nomination.

Obviously, Beatty and Buchanan each hold to deeply felt personal beliefs - as do most Americans. Presumably, they'll continue to do so. But for the Reform Party the concern is not so much "back-burnering" social issues (that goes without saying), as frontburnering the urgent need for political and electoral reform.

If Beatty or Buchanan or both choose to compete (and be competitive) for the Reform nomination, it will have to be on these terms. That turn of events would make the statement that traditional Right ideology and traditional Left ideology (and the mirror-image movements they fueled), have failed to position the country for progress. That's a wholly different message for a presidential campaign.

But with $13 million (the federal campaign funding the party qualifies for because of Ross Perot's showing in the 1996 presidential race) for next year's election and a candidate as notorious as either Buchanan or Beatty, the Reform Party could deliver enough of a political culture-shock to undercut the ideologically driven divisiveness and opportunism that has so corrupted our democracy.

*Jacqueline Salit is a New York-based political consultant for independent parties and candidates, based in New York. She is writing a book on the Reform Party.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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