WHEN Bob Dole proclaimed himself the "presumptive nominee" of the Republican Party, he spoke the truth. Since Day 1 presumptiveness bordering on presumptuousness has characterized the Republican primary process, wherein the search for a candidate who could beat Bill Clinton was not based on building consensus among Republicans so much as ramming it down their throats.
The Republicans, however, look like veritable populists compared with the Democrats. Any notion of a primary challenge to Mr. Clinton was squelched early on by the party hierarchy, while the president amassed about $11 million in federal matching funds to beat an invisible primary opponent.
But there is still serious trouble on the horizon for the two parties: the independent voter, the largest voting bloc in the country today.
Independent voters, so far overwhelmingly white, are the wild card in the '96 election. Everyone wants those independent voters. Everyone sees them as the critical swing vote. And everyone presumes that's how they see themselves. But do they?
Will the white independent, a.k.a. the radical center or the "Perot voter," be content with being merely the swing vote between two parties that drive the country further into crisis every day? White independent voters could decide to go beyond being merely a "swing" constituency to empowering themselves. How? By hooking up with black voters.
When Gen. Colin Powell declined to run last November, he offered a most perceptive observation of black America's souring relationship to the Democrats: "I think it is in the interest of the country, and in the interests of African-Americans, to have that hold shaken loose."
General Powell was undoubtedly hoping that the Republicans would become an option, which they won't. But Powell struck a deep chord in black politics when he noted that it would be in the interests of African-Americans to break from the Democrats.
Black sentiment in favor of a third party has been visible for more than a decade. After the Rev. Jesse Jackson's first run for the presidency in 1984, a poll conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan showed that 57 percent of blacks who had voted for Reverend Jackson in Democratic primaries would have voted for him if he had run as an independent. Ten years later, those statistics matured into the 1994 polls that showed that 57 percent of blacks favored creation of a third party.
Add to those statistics Minister Louis Farrakhan's enthusiastic call to participants in the Million Man March and to all black Americans to create an independent "third force," and we have a situation where black voters are ready to exit the Democratic Party and enter a new political alliance.
Can black voters and white independents become real partners?
Many radical centrists who supported Ross Perot in '92 did so to protest rampant growth of government and the big deficits it incurred to fund massive programs that have done little to develop the nation. (The Democratic Party used the War on Poverty to install a highly controlled patronage infrastructure, not to end poverty.)
Strength in numbers
Among African-Americans, Latinos, gays, and other traditionally pro-big-government constituencies, an approach that replaces the pattern of blatantly politicized spending with direct citizens' democracy and a new national environment for debating social issues has considerable appeal.
Moreover, many Americans fear that the antagonism between black and white will destroy the fabric of our country. The national concern with crime and welfare reform has, of course, profoundly to do with race. Far from finding ways to bridge the racial divide, the Democratic and Republican Parties have exacerbated it - largely for their own political purposes. An independent party that brings whites and blacks together to lead a democratic restructuring could break the racial impasse.
At the level of practical politics, it's a numbers game. Blacks account for about 10 percent of the total vote cast in presidential elections. To state the obvious, the combination of the 20 percent "Perot vote," the 10 percent black vote, and other disaffected constituencies from the left/liberal Democratic wing and the right populist wing of Republicans adds up to a plurality in a three-way race.
The bottom line is this: The independent white voter needs blacks in order to go somewhere. Blacks need the independent white voter in order to have somewhere to go.