This Ain't No Party

Ross Perot launched the Reform Party as the voice of the American people. Eight years later, it's a shrill, staticky free-for-all, and the moderates can't get heard.

Some of these candidates are true believers in the founding Reform principles; some are Buchananites eager to stamp out the New World Order; some just want their own brand of change. Many have campaigned unsuccessfully in the past as Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, U.S. Taxpayers or all of the above. What draws them to the Reform Party now is expediency, not ideology.

Frank, for example, grew disillusioned with the Republicans' $100-a-plate dinners and exclusive power. He'd been interested in politics since age 12, when he met Nelson Rockefeller at the Republican National Convention. Then he graduated from St. Louis Country Day School and Loyola University, worked for large national brokerage firms, started a picture-perfect family and became, at 28, the youngest alderman in Frontenac's history. But when he watched John McCain suffer the slings and arrows hurled by good ol' boys supporting George W. Bush, he says, it "soured" him. So he turned to the Reform Party, but not because he embraced their central tenets. "I'm a free-trader," he shrugs. "Probably the only place I agree with the Reform Party is campaign-finance reform."

If the Missouri Reform Party is anything, it's tolerant of disagreement. You don't even have to belong to the party to run on their ticket. When Kline accepted their invitation, he "didn't even know their platform." Benson "met Perot years and years ago at a party. He wouldn't remember me. But it was a good year to run as an outsider. If I go in with the Reform Party, I can do things that Republicans and Democrats can't, and if I have to embarrass the General Assembly into acting, I can."

Pledging various allegiances at the Missouri Reform Party candidates' forum last Friday at the St. Louis County Library's Tesson Ferry branch. Senate candidate Hugh Foley stands at the far left, lieutenant-governor candidate George "Boots" Weber at the far right.
Jennifer Silverberg
Pledging various allegiances at the Missouri Reform Party candidates' forum last Friday at the St. Louis County Library's Tesson Ferry branch. Senate candidate Hugh Foley stands at the far left, lieutenant-governor candidate George "Boots" Weber at the far right.

Foley calls himself "an independent running as a Reform Party candidate. I can look at myself in the mirror shaving and say, 'That's OK, because it's an open party -- just about anybody can run.'" Pause. "That's a weakness in the party."

Ah, but third parties can't afford weakness. They have to revolutionize the voters, amuse the masses and steal the show away from the mainstream parties, whether that means standing on stilts, clown-fighting or swallowing flaming torches. "Americans like circuses," remarks Wayne Fields, co-director of the American-culture-studies program at Washington University and a scholar of American political rhetoric. "In the big parties, you're never sure what's really going on, but all the clowns are out in the open when they're running their own campaign. It's entertainment, it's spectacle, it's the central drama of whether we can endure as a people so divided in opinion."

Besides, we're so bored with bejeweled elephants lumbering in circles -- and the earnest donkeys who imitate them in the second ring -- that we do look over occasionally, diverted but unconvinced. Some of the performers refresh our jaded eyes with their old-fashioned enthusiasm. Others look more like exiles from the Island of Misfit Toys, and their extremism places the rest of us in an awkward position.

"I don't think the future of the party is very bright," admits Foley. "It's fractured at the top, and it has no spokespeople to push its platform, which is reasonable and moderate, even though it can be interpreted in other ways. I would hope that, should there be debates for the senatorial candidates, the Reform and Libertarian candidates would be invited. It might be embarrassing, depending on how we comport," he adds wryly. "But if access is denied, we'll continue to have the problems I'm running to change."

Asked his opinion of his Reform Party rival, Foley tries hard: "Martin Lindstedt is a 42-year-old man with some very definitive political ideas on the kind of America he believes we should have. Whether you would call him a racist or a separatist, I suppose, depends on your definition of those terms. But he will have appeal ..." He breaks off, pushes his yellow legal pad aside and abandons the calm, measured rhetoric altogether.

"This is what will hurt the Reform Party," he blurts. "Guilt by association."

Related Links:

moreform.org

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