Few causes in American politics are as quixotic, and as unrequited, as third parties. Only the Republican Party, which emerged as a third alternative in the mid-19th century, had enough staying power to break the two-party duopoly.
But the lessons of history have not deterred activists of the fledgling Reform Party.
Char Roberts became a believer gathering signatures in supermarket parking lots this spring to put the Reform Party on the California ballot. "The sleeping giant is awakening, and I haven't felt that before," she says.
Founded this year by billionaire businessman Ross Perot, the Reform Party is an untested factor in national politics. But the leaders of both major parties are already fretting over its potential impact on the November vote.
At a party office here last week, five Reform activists spoke about their party and the state of American politics. They are serious, thoughtful citizens who talk issues, not personalities. Their's is the politics of the "radical middle," a combination of economic populism, fiscal conservatism, and social liberalism that is searching for a political home.
The activists, all from northern California, share with many Americans a deep sense of disenfranchisement from a political system in which powerful special interests seem to have the loudest voice.
"The broad populace, the middle class in America, just has no role in establishing policy in the United States any more," says Justin Roberts, a lawyer from suburban Contra Costa County and a member of the state party's board of directors.
They credit the 1992 presidential bid by Mr. Perot with giving them a sense of purpose they had not found before. "Up until that point I never believed I could participate in the process, let alone change it," says Kathy Rus, also a state party leader and co-owner with her husband of a direct-mail advertising company.
Not just a Perot platform?
When a plan for formation of the Reform Party was announced earlier this year, it was widely dismissed as just a platform for Perot to run again for the White House. Few saw the effort as a serious attempt to build a lasting party structure, let alone one open to other potential candidates for the presidency.
But this week's announcement by former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm that he would seek the Reform Party nomination has shaken that conventional wisdom. Governor Lamm, a Democrat, kicked off his campaign Tuesday in San Jose, Calif., where he was endorsed by two prominent San Francisco Bay Area politicians - former San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery, a Democrat, and former Congressman Ed Zschau, a Republican.
The Reform Party has mailed nominating ballots to some 1.3 million registered party members, and anyone named on 10 percent of the returned ballots will speak at the party's Aug. 11 nominating convention in Long Beach, Calif. Party members will then vote by mail, the Internet, or telephone, and the results will be announced at a second convention a week later in Valley Forge, Pa.
The California branch of the Reform Party, with about 120,000 registered voters, is by far the largest in the nation. Lamm's candidacy was launched at the state party convention in early June. There Lamm found an audience that devoured his unpolitic calls to sharply curb entitlement programs and live within the nation's budgetary means.
"That was really the first time he had met us, and he was very nervous about it," recalls Ms. Roberts. "I think he was amazed at how quickly we took to his orphan issues, to the tough issues, how ready we were for that."
The warm reception helped convince Lamm that the Reform Party was not a Perot personality cult but a group of people trying to change the American political landscape. "He's got the fire in his belly now," says Mr. Roberts.
The five California activists all say their votes are up for grabs, but there's little doubt that the Reform Party is an organization built in Perot's image. Its members remain devotees of the illustrated "infomercials" the Texas businessman uses to talk about the national debt. They repeat his warnings of the "giant sucking sound" of jobs heading south to Mexico as the result of "misguided" free-trade pacts. And they embrace his denunciation of Washington, with its professional politicians and armies of lobbyists, as the source of most political evil.
"For me, there is one issue, and they all spin off it - the national debt," says Ms. Roberts. "I'd heard a lot of stuff, like the debt is only a certain percentage of the gross national product.... Then [Perot] got me to thinking about it, and reading more about it, and realizing that I hadn't been thinking. He shot me off my Barcalounger."
John Place owns a slate-tile company whose offices double as headquarters for his campaign as Reform Party candidate for Congress from California's 10th District. "I think the first issue is trade and the loss of jobs overseas," he says. "Secondly, campaign finance reform.... In this election one of my main stands is, don't waste your vote - if the incumbent or his opponent takes any PAC [political action committee] money, they will not represent you."
The would-be reformers also echo some of the same economic populism that stoked the unsuccessful presidential campaign of Republican Pat Buchanan.
"The corporations have lost sight of something Henry Ford knew perfectly well - that if he paid his workers well, they could buy his cars," says Ms. Roberts.
Where GOP went wrong
But the social issues trumpeted by Mr. Buchanan and other conservatives, such as abortion rights, do not figure on the Reform Party agenda.
"Nothing could drive me out of the Republican Party faster than a party trying to legislate that kind of thing, particularly a party that says they don't want big government," says Lynn Barthel, a feisty, single, mother of two who has recently been retrained to work with computers at a community college. "Someone once said, we really want to keep the Democrats out of our pocketbooks and the Republicans out of our bedrooms. That's kind of where it is for me."
While these activists were all registered Republicans, the California Reform Party is split fairly evenly between former members of the GOP and the Democratic Party. Even though they voted for Perot in 1992 and remained active in his United We Stand America movement, they were ready to give the Republicans another try in '94 when the GOP's Contract With America included many of their favorite themes, such as term limits for elected officials.
"Being a Republican myself, I had a lot of hope that they would pull off what they said," says Mr. Place. "But it was pretty obvious after a couple of months that it was just 'spin.' "
That was the last straw for these Perot voters. "After that, there was no doubt in my mind whatsoever that a new party was the way to go," Ms. Roberts says.
All waved off any likelihood that they would cast a vote for either of the two major party candidates. While they dismiss Whitewater and the other Clinton scandals as a "distraction," there is clearly little admiration for the president. But they see presumed GOP nominee Bob Dole as a consummate Washington insider. "Bob Dole's only message that I've heard so far is, 'It's my turn,' and that doesn't cut it with me," says Mr. Roberts.
Integrity is the word these citizens most associate with what they want in a political leader. "Someone like Perot, or Richard Lamm, are people who have been talking about the same issues. They've never veered from them," says Ms. Roberts. "Lamm doesn't talk about entitlements [just] because he wants to be president. That's the kind of figure I want to see in our bully pulpit."