Remaking the Reform Party?

By W. James Antle III
web posted February 21, 2000

When Patrick J. Buchanan left the Republican Party last October to seek the Reform Party's presidential nomination, many questions were raised by his friends and foes alike. Many openly questioned whether the "pit bull of the right" had sold out in exchange for $12.6 million in federal matching funds by joining this cast of characters.

Conservative critics, some of them presidential candidates themselves, were astonished that the bellicose pro-lifer would bolt the officially pro-life GOP for a party that was silent on the abortion issue in its platform and pro-choice in its leadership. Among those pro-choice leaders was the party's highest elected official, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who told Playboy magazine he wanted to be reincarnated as a bra and that organized religion was a "sham" and "crutch for weak-minded people."

Even those on the right who were disenchanted with the GOP and inclined toward Buchanan's views shuddered, fearing he would be compromised by the presence of Lenora Fulani, an activist so far to the left as to be widely considered Marxist. Constitution Party vice-chairman Ed Frami warned of the "coalition trap" and reiterated the need for an unqualifiedly conservative party homogeneously and unambiguously committed to constitutionalist principles.

Now, as of this writing, only one of those critics remains in the Republican presidential race, which will be won by one of two men with dubious conservative ideological pedigrees: Gov. George W. Bush, darling of the Republican establishment, and Sen. John McCain, darling of the liberal media. Buchanan is the only major candidate for the Reform Party nomination.

Both Ventura and Donald Trump are out of the party, and the Buchanan brigades of 1992 and 1996 are increasingly signing up. Jack Gargan, a Ventura man, has been ousted as party chair and replaced by Pat Choate, the 1996 vice-presidential nominee and former Buchanan campaign co-chair.

Pat Buchanan may be in the process of transforming the Reform Party into an analogue of Preston Manning's Canadian Reform Party, conservative nationalists who undid the do-nothing Tories. Buchanan shares with Reform founder Ross Perot a populist "America First" credo, hawkish trade views, support for immigration control, contempt for the Washington elite and a concentration on preserving our national identity and sovereignty. He differs with the Perotistas on social issues, but as many of the 3 million voters who supported him in GOP primaries over the last two election cycles follow him, the party drifts rightward- perhaps at the expense of Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer and others who tried unsuccessfully to rally the right in the 2000 primaries.

Taking an existing third party associated with a celebrity and attempting an ideological reconfiguration is not unprecedented, even for the right. The American Independent Party of George Wallace was thoroughly statist, anti-business, segregationist and otherwise emblematic of its 1968 standard-bearer, the leader of the Democratic Party's Southern racist wing. Yet when Wallace won millions of votes by invoking state's rights and broadening his defense of Alabama segregation into a populist crusade against federal intrusiveness and liberal arrogance, conservatives saw an opening. The party's next nominee was John Schmitz, a conservative Republican congressman from California. By the mid-70s, conservatives as prominent as National Review publisher William Rusher and direct-mail whiz Richard Viguire flirted with the party, driving out the segregationist-statist wing which had to form a rival party led by renegade Democrat Lester Maddox. Today, the American Independent Party is part of Howard Phillips' Constitution Party.

Evidence exists this is being attempted with Perot's party today. Ron Sharpe was a leader in the Texas Republican Party, which distinguished itself with unequivocally nationalist and constitutionalist platforms promulgated by conventions under the control of the most passionate conservatives. He ran for Congress as a Republican patriot. He has followed Buchanan into the Reform Party and now is running for Congress under its banner. The executive director of the devoutly conservative Missouri Republican Assembly has also switched, resigning his position to help the Buchanan campaign. Peppy Martin, the GOP's 1998 gubernatorial nominee in Kentucky, is now a Reform Party congressional candidate and Buchanan supporter. One of Buchanan's fledgling opponents for the nomination is conservative businessman Charles Collins, a fervent exponent of American sovereignty who was himself a minor candidate for the GOP nomination in 1996.

Fracturing the right into competing parties up against unified Democratic liberals may be unwise. Buchanan's populist and anti-free trade views may not be the most coherent formulation of conservative doctrine. It is even debatable whether a party (and a presidential campaign) that still incorporates Fulani and Choate will ever be a viable vehicle for the conservative movement. But the right's increasingly dim prospects within the GOP make it imperative for conservatives to keep an open mind.

Antle is a former researcher for the Rhema Group and stubbornly remains a member of the Republican Party. You can e-mail him at Jimantle@aol.com

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