Cracks Are Showing in Reform Party Planks

Third parties rarely live up to their advance billing. If such efforts were advertised accurately-that is, if they were described as vainglorious crusades bound to have no noticeable effect on national elections, besides occasionally frustrating the aspirations of a major-party candidate-then nobody would enlist. But the Reform Party, originally inflated by the money and rhetoric of Ross Perot, is now being transformed into something new: a giant bingo parlor where the grand prize is $13 million in Federal matching funds.

The only real question is whether the game is fixed.

In theory, Mr. Perot’s vanity vehicle was meant to cleanse American politics of all the corrupt compromises that afflict the major parties. In practice, after two uninspiring campaigns by the Texas wing nut himself, the Reform Party is splitting into factions and drawing all sorts of buccaneers and publicity hounds.

A poll released on Aug. 19 by the firm of Schroth and Associates suggests that the most unsavory of all those potential suitors, television commentator and culture warrior Patrick J. Buchanan, just might be the party’s strongest potential candidate. According to that survey of 1,000 voters, Mr. Buchanan would take 16 percent of the vote in a three-way contest with Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, leaving them in a virtual dead heat, with 39 percent and 35 percent respectively.

Surprisingly, Mr. Buchanan outpaced the rising Reform Party star and Governor of Minnesota, Jesse (the Body) Ventura, who took only 12 percent in a trial heat against the presumed major-party nominees.

Disgruntled Democrat Warren Beatty, rap-spouting star of the noble but unprofitable Bulworth , showed surprising strength, with 11 percent. Mr. Perot’s own diminished credibility was sadly evident in his puny 6 percent showing. Of the names tested in the Schroth poll, only Lowell Weicker, the former Governor of Connecticut, did worse, with 4 percent.

Those early numbers could make a defection from the Republicans irresistibly attractive to Mr. Buchanan, currently engaged in a coy courtship with Mr. Perot and his associates. If the Crossfire blusterer somehow managed to push his popular vote total over 25 percent, he just might be able to extend his midlife career as a perennial Presidential candidate for another cycle or two.

Ideological conflicts might complicate this budding flirtation. There is actually a Reform Party platform, posted on the party’s Web site, which proclaims, for example, that “one of our greatest strengths is our diversity; and we will foster tolerance of the customs, beliefs, and private actions of all persons which do not infringe upon the rights of others.” That sounds like a code for support of abortion rights and toleration of homosexuality, both of which are anathema to Mr. Buchanan.

But that same platform, largely a potpourri of Mr. Perot’s prejudices and peeves, contains an anti-immigration plank that might tempt the renegade Republican to abandon the unborn. Mr. Buchanan certainly shares the protectionist perspective of the Reform Party’s house intellectual, author Pat Choate, who ran for Vice President on the Perot ticket in 1996.

Perhaps more important than principle to Mr. Perot may be the possibility that a Buchanan candidacy could deprive George Dubya of the Presidency-an outcome that would thrill the turbulent little Texan, whose disdain for Democrats is far exceeded by his festering feud with anyone named George Bush.

There would be risks in backing Mr. Buchanan, of course. He sounds smoother than Mr. Perot but in reality is no less eccentric. His natural inclination to veer rightward might lead him to do something excessively weird, like nominating the commander of the Michigan Militia for Vice President, or vowing to pardon a deported Nazi war criminal in his acceptance speech.

Moreover, any attempt to impose Mr. Buchanan on the Reform Party might provoke Governor Ventura and his supporters to bolt. Where would they go? Despite his macho populism, as Garry Wills points out in The New York Review of Books , the former pro wrestler’s differences with the Democrats have more to do with style than substance. If they have any brains whatsoever, Democratic leaders ought to open a back channel to Mr. Ventura so they can lure him over-if and when he suddenly finds the Reform Party inhospitable to a tolerant, thoughtful, moderate fellow like himself.

The abiding spirit of the Reform Party, like all third parties, is “none of the above,” and that same sentiment might apply to the Schroth poll as well. Missing from its match-ups was another name mentioned at the party’s recent convention, the irrepressible Donald J. Trump: monument builder, celebrity skirt-chaser, ideological blank slate, military academy graduate and-thanks to his check-writing experience in local politics-a potentially compelling spokesman for campaign finance reform. When the gaming begins in earnest for that $13 million jackpot from Uncle Sam, Atlantic City’s top casino operator may be unbeatable if he gets the wink from Mr. Perot. After all, doesn’t the house always win?