One step forward - two steps back. That is the prospect facing the Reform Party if it follows its spectacular gubernatorial success in Minnesota by nominating Pat Buchanan as its presidential candidate.
The election of Jesse Ventura as Minnesota's governor gave the Reform Party its first big win. More important, it gave the party an opportunity to prove it had a governing agenda.
What does it mean to be Reform? Unfortunately the national media don't always look beneath the glitter to see the substance of the Ventura administration. Just look at his track record.
He selected a cabinet - including several respected Democrats and Republicans - that has been described by editorial writers at major Minnesota newspapers as one of the best cabinets in recent memory. This fulfilled his pledge to pick commissioners based on merit and without regard to party label. In doing so, he set the stage for tripartisan cooperation and signaled to voters that his administration would govern differently.
Mr. Ventura persuaded state legislators to enact an unprecedented sales tax rebate and to reduce income tax rates, while at the same time enlarging the state's rainy day fund. Most taxpayers have already received rebate checks of between $250 and $2,200.
These accomplishments delivered on Ventura's promise to impose fiscal discipline by giving back to the taxpayers any surplus revenues and to apply fiscal prudence by strengthening the budget reserve.
He also submitted - and ultimately signed into law - a budget that held the line on most areas of state spending, while dedicating 70 percent of new spending to public education. In doing so, Ventura honored his commitment to make education his top policy priority, a priority that he emphasized during his campaign by selecting school teacher Mae Schunk as his running mate.
In all, Ventura has governed as a centrist. His views and his policies reflect tolerance on social issues and prudence on fiscal matters - just the combination that Minnesota voters were looking for, but could never find, in the Democratic or Republican parties.
Ventura may be a celebrity, but, unlike Ross Perot at the national level, he has done much to move Reform beyond personality to substance. Through his leadership, the Minnesota Reform Party is beginning to define Reform well within mainstream politics.
If the Reform movement embraces Buchanan, the party moves to the margins of politics. On trade and immigration, for example, Buchanan has staked out jingoistic positions that smack of fortress America - unrealistic in a world growing smaller with each advance in technology and diplomacy. His isolationist views are a throwback to the 19th century, not relevant at the birth of the 21st century.
Further, Buchanan's zealous views on abortion and gay rights have attracted significant support from religious conservatives. These are fiercely divisive issues that have never been central to the identity of Reform. However, it is an unavoidable fact that social issues would become dominant and defining if Buchanan is the Reform candidate.
If Reform is to become a serious and significant force in national politics, it must present an agenda that resonates with most Americans.
It must distinguish itself from the liberal left and the conservative right. It must be the party that speaks for the majority of Americans who are disgusted with the political extremes and hungry for an alternative that represents the sensible center.
Ventura has brought the Reform movement a long way. In Minnesota, the Reform Party is flowing with the current of public opinion, and Ventura's high job approval attests to his agenda's popularity. But, his success needs to be replicated nationally by a presidential candidate who similarly defines the party in mainstream terms.
Buchanan is so far from the mainstream he cannot see the water. Reformers would be well advised to leave him on dry land and search instead for a more centrist candidate to lead our ship of state.
*Timothy J. Penny, a former Democratic congressman from Minnesota, is a senior fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He is a member of an unpaid advisory panel to Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society