Reform Party threatens to self-destruct

Convention's bitter infighting and lack of definite agenda reflect party's falling star.

Ah, the good old days.

Just when it seemed like the Republicans and Democrats had managed to grind every last moment of spontaneity out of the conventions, along comes a powwow that's put the punch back in politics.

Shouting matches. Contested nominations. Cries of underhanded dealings. It's all part of the brawling Reform Party gathering now being held in Long Beach, Calif.

"It's an absolute zoo out there," says David Gillespie, a political scientist at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C. "It's definitely the most interesting convention."

But at the same time, this convention is serious business. The maverick Reform Party, which grew out of Ross Perot's popular 1992 presidential bid, is fighting for its political life. And its main source of opposition is itself.

A storm that's been brewing for months over control of the party blew up earlier this week as the Reform Party National Committee split into two bitterly angry factions - supporters of party newcomer and celebrated conservative Pat Buchanan, and forces loyal to Mr. Perot, who are supporting an all-but-unknown physicist named John Hagelin. At stake are $12.6 million in federal campaign-finance funds, which have been earmarked for the party's nominee.

Political hari-kari

The battle, which is expected to rumble through the weekend, and possibly well into the final months of the campaign as both sides threaten lawsuits, may well claim the party as one of its victims. Unlike the 20-year-old Libertarian Party, the Reform Party lacks a set of clearly defined issues, as well as strong grass-roots organizations, to hold it together.

"Remember that Japanese ritual called hari-kari?" says Dennis Goldford, head of the political science department at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. "That's what the Reform Party is doing to itself. If they had what it takes to survive this mess, which is a firm ideological core with a solid base of supporters, they wouldn't have gotten into this mess in the first place."

Even some Reform Party members are taken aback by the mayhem. Ken Thornley, whose wife Donna Donovan was dumped from her job as volunteer press secretary, has followed the proceedings from his home in Connecticut.

"These people are nuts," he says. "This group started out so clean, so honest. All it wanted was campaign reform."

But the party's famous openness - it has a mail-in balloting system - made it vulnerable to a takeover by someone like Mr. Buchanan.

A highly motivated defector from the Republican Party, Buchanan's socially conservative views are anathema to many members of the Reform Party, which eschews stands on social issues and focuses instead on campaign-finance reform and government accountability. In fact, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura - the party's flashiest and highest elected official - left the party earlier this year in a dispute over Buchanan's influence.

Jim Mangia, a top party official who led the anti-Buchanan faction in its walkout from Tuesday's meeting, says the Reform Party is still sending an important message to the American people. Party members fighting against Buchanan on the grounds that he improperly obtained votes, are taking a stand "for decency, integrity, and political reform.

"Discussion of our death is somewhat premature," he adds. "It's a tough situation, but we're standing up for principle."

Buchanan's supporters, on the other hand, argue that their critics are simply poor losers. Last weekend, appearing on the Sunday television talk shows, Buchanan himself warned that if he did not get the nomination, "it is pretty much the end of the Reform Party."

Diminished impact

Regardless of who ultimately emerges, however, political experts seriously doubt the party nominee will attract anywhere near the following of Perot, who rode public dissatisfaction with government to win 19 percent of the vote in 1992 and 8 percent in 1996. Buchanan, by comparison, hovers at around 2 percent in public-opinion polls. If the party fails to reach the 5 percent mark at the ballot box, it will lose its eligibility to receive federal funds in the next election.

"It will lose the real moment that it had, even in 1996," says Sandy Maisel, a professor of government at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

If Buchanan does win the nomination - and the party's $12.6 million in federal funds are not tied up in lawsuits - he could cause some trouble for GOP nominee George W. Bush by drawing votes from the party's disaffected conservative wing.

However, if he downplays his social agenda and promotes his antiglobalization, isolationist policies, he could instead draw from disaffected Democratic rank-and-file union members upset with Vice President Al Gore's pro-free-trade stand.

Still, few observers predict much of an impact. The party's time has simply come and gone, they say. "For the past year or more, they've been on their last legs," says Calvin Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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