The ascent of maverick politics

Candidates who buck their parties have a long history in the US. Can

Call it one of the most uncommon political gambits of the year: two of the leading presidential candidates crossing party lines to call for an overhaul of the nation's political system.

Tonight as Republican John McCain and Democrat Bill Bradley join in a televised town meeting to tout the need to get special-interest money out of politics, they'll also be testing a time-honored American tradition - bucking the status quo.

As insurgent independents looking to knock out their parties' front-runners, both are going against the nation's political establishment, which they argue has been corrupted by big-money donations. But will it work? Both, to differing extents, are also taking on their own parties, a risky strategy that historically has produced only limited success despite its enduring appeal.

"It's an ... American tradition that taps the 'antipolitics' dimensions that have been a part of our political system since the Founding Fathers," says Thomas Patterson of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

When presidents Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan took on Congress as the establishment, they succeeded in changing the nation's political dynamic. But most who've challenged their parties' powerful chiefs, like John Anderson in 1980 and Gary Hart in 1984, made headlines for a while, then faded.

A few have wrested nominations away from the establishment's chosen heirs, from Wendell Willkie in 1940 to Barry Goldwater in 1964 to George McGovern in 1972. But then, they lost the general election. "That doesn't seem very profound, but we are a party system, and if you discourage your base, you're not going to be in good shape," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Jimmy Carter did win running in part as an outsider in 1976. But that year there was no clear Democratic heir apparent that had the party's blessings.

Still, most pundits are hesitant to underestimate either Mr. Bradley or Mr. McCain. By choosing Claremont, N.H., for their unusual bipartisan plea, they're pointedly reminding voters of the broken promises made by both parties' leaders.

In 1995, President Clinton and then House Speaker Newt Gingrich also crossed their ideological divide in Claremont and shook hands as they committed to changing the way political parties pay for their operations. The event produced a famous photo, but not much more.

The symbolism is not lost on either McCain or Bradley, both of whom are vying for independent voters, which are growing in number. Thirty years ago, three-quarters of Americans identified with one of the two major parties. That number has now dropped to under 60 percent, giving upstarts a firmer foundation.

"This is an age of independents, and parties don't mean what they used to," says Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

While campaign-finance reform still ranks behind education, taxes, and health care as public concerns, it's proven to be a good issue to attract independents. Many became wary of the impact of money on politics after the abuses of both parties during the 1996 presidential campaign. And they're frustrated nothing's been done about it.

Both Bradley and McCain have made campaign-finance overhaul pillars of their election efforts, tapping successfully into voter dissatisfaction, particularly in New Hampshire. It has helped put them in a position to upset their parties' front-runners, Vice President Al Gore (D) and Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R), in the first primary.

"Both Bush and Gore do have much of the political establishment on their side," says West. "But that creates underdogs, and Americans still love underdogs."

That's particularly true in New Hampshire, which is noted for its independent streak and penchant for upsets. Not surprisingly, that's where McCain has gained the most traction, now leading Bush in the polls. And McCain, far more than Bradley, has openly defied his party. With sharp attacks on the corrupting influence of money, the Arizona senator has championed his bipartisan campaign-finance reform proposal, known as the McCain-Feingold bill, year after year to the dismay of the GOP Senate leadership.

In the debate this week, he voluntarily came out against ethanol subsidies, which verge on the sacred in Iowa, as nothing more than pork-barrel spending. He also challenged Bush and the other candidates to forswear so-called soft money donations that go directly to the parties' coffers.

"We can give the government back to the people," he said.

But Bush declined McCain's offer, contending it would amount to "unilateral disarmament." Those are the exact words President Clinton has used over the years to defend the Democratic Party's use of soft money.

Still, despite his rise in the polls, many pundits think McCain has alienated too much of the Republican base to win the nomination.

"McCain is literally the Democrats' favorite Republican - you hear constantly from Republicans that the man has the wrong friends and the wrong enemies," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

Bradley, for his part, is closer to the traditional Democratic primary voter in many of his positions than is Gore. Bradley initially shied away from attacking the party, choosing instead to try to present himself as a "positive" alternative to the "entrenched establishment."

But Bradley has been forced to fire back as Gore has stepped up his attacks - and regained momentum. This week Bradley attacked Gore in particular for ignoring campaign-finance reform.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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