Pat Buchanan has signed his declaration of independence. He did it with an appeal to a new patriotism - fittingly enough, as patriotism and political independence have been linked since the American Revolution. His announcement is big news on the political scene, bad news for both the Republican and Democratic parties, and an opportunity for the Reform Party.
It's big news because Mr. Buchanan is a consummate insider who has defected to the outsiders - to the Reform Party. It has the potential to shake up the old coalitions of both major parties and peel layers of them away to Reform. It offers Reform a contender who has the capacity to make its issue - busting up the two-party monopoly and democratizing American politics - a centerpiece in campaign 2000.
Some say Buchanan is an opportunist looking to grab on to Reform to save his flagging political fortunes. Certainly, politics is all about seizing opportunities. But singling out the newly independent Buchanan seems a mite - shall we say - opportunistic?
In his announcement speech, Pat Buchanan pronounced the two-party system a "fraud" and a "snare" - and pledged his investment in an independent antidote - a new political party focused on reforming the broken system rather than relying on the corrupt two parties to police themselves.
Contrast Buchanan with Bill Bradley, who left the United States Senate in 1995 because, as he said, "Politics is broke." Mr. Bradley then reappears four years later, persisting as a Democrat, but portraying himself as the reformer. Who's the opportunist here?
For its part, the Reform Party has been criticized for "standing for nothing" and thereby creating a vacuum into which ideologues like Buchanan or egologues like Donald Trump can hop. Yet this ignores the actual history of Reform, which deliberately created itself to be nonideological.
The American people seem to feel it's actually the Democratic and Republican Parties that don't stand for anything - other than their own reelection. They're only interested in winning. They have no principled issues. They only have pollsters who tell them what to believe and when to believe it.
The Reform Party, not just a new party but a new kind of party, believes in one thing very deeply: The right to self-governance. It stands for restructuring a partisan political process that is entirely driven by the Democratic and Republican need to win and has become entirely corrupted along the way. It is precisely because the Democrats and Republicans don't stand for anything that the Reform Party exists in the first place.
The acid test for Buchanan and any other candidate who ultimately enters the Reform primary process - including Donald Trump, Jesse Ventura, and Ross Perot - is how aggressively they articulate an agenda to deconstruct the power of the two parties. Trade, immigration, foreign policy, and fiscal constraint are all issues of concern to Reformers. But the paramount concern is how the process of policymaking and governance works.
Right now, it's top-down, elitist, and heavily manipulated by corporate and big labor special interests. Legal restrictions aimed at excluding voters and outside-the-Beltway candidates, combined with a culture of negative campaigning, are promoted and protected by the two major parties. When, and only when, the American people can harness the policymaking process for themselves, will they overcome the special interests.
Political reforms are the key. Same-day voter registration, which brings new and young voters to the polls in record numbers, is needed on a national scale to reverse the frightening decrease in participation.
Treating candidate debates as civic events using inclusionary objective criteria, rather than as partisan events controlled by the major parties, would guarantee that the American people will hear from all candidates and elevate the level of national dialogue. Imposing term limits on elected officials and giving all voters the right to initiative and referenda will clean up the incumbency-protection racket while giving citizens a mechanism for grassroots policymaking.
These are the issues that Pat Buchanan must use to mobilize his peasant army if he is to storm the citadel of two-party power.
*Jacqueline Salit is a New York-based political consultant for independent parties and candidates. She is writing a book on independent politics titled "Reforming America."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society