Whither Go the Third Parties?

Nader inspired deep loyalty among his following and picked up significant numbers of defecting Democrats. But because of its narrow environmental focus, it’s hard to imagine the Green Party appealing broadly enough to support a serious run at the White House. Integrally tied to its environmentalist ethos is desire for a big, activist federal government that, on economic matters anyway, borders on socialism.

Nader's name recognition was of immeasurable help to the Green Party, particularly in garnering fawning media attention. Without him, the party would need to find another big name or sink back into the less than 1% peanut gallery. With Nader, the next go-around might possibly see them reach the needed 5%, but don’t look for a Green Party inaugural celebration anytime soon.

Libertarian Party candidate Harry Browne looks and talks like a presidential candidate should — he’s smart, charismatic, speaks eloquently and is principled to a fault. This was his third presidential campaign and his speeches are now smooth as silk. He would have made mincemeat of the two major party candidates had he been allowed in the debates.

But without access to the debates, huge advertising budgets, and media exposure, Browne’s party languished among the also-rans, with few knowing his name and even fewer voting for him. It’s a pity, because he could have brought real intellectual fireworks to the campaign. Brown’s tally of 376,000 votes was about 100,000 votes fewer than 1996. One thing is assured, though: the Libertarian Party isn't about to pack up and go home. At least 27 Libertarian Party candidates were elected to local office and several others ran competitive races for Congressional and state legislative seats. Like Schwarzenegger, they’ll be back.

One of the most overlooked campaign stories is the failure of Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan to register even a blip on election screens. The final vote (if there is such a thing) showed Buchanan with 440,469 votes, about .4 of 1% of the total. Among the minor party candidates, Buchanan lagged far behind Ralph Nader’s 2.7 million votes, barely edging Libertarian Browne.

This is a far cry from the Buchanan Brigade buoyancy greeting Buchanan’s announcement earlier this year that he was joining the Reform Party. Thanks to the party’s 8% tally in the 1996 elections, twelve million federal advertising dollars were there for the taking. Pundits talked in double-digit terms, speculating that Buchanan could cost George Bush the election. Supporters wondered if Buchanan could top Ross Perot’s whopping 19% in the 1992 election, a showing that really did cost George Bush — senior, that is — the White House.)

So what happened?

To begin with, Buchanan picked the wrong hot rod to drive in the race. A man of strong principles, Buchanan became the standard-bearer for a party without any principles. The Reform Party lacks a discernible platform, other than being for “change.” But change itself is neither good nor bad — it depends what you’re changing from and what you’re changing to. They might as well call themselves the “Change Party.”

G. K. Chesterton said, “It is futile to discuss reform without reference to form.” By this he meant you must first consider the proper role and function of the thing you wish to reform. Consideration of first principles never seems to occur to most in the Reform Party, including those of its two foremost apostles, Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura. Yet without principles, there is no rallying point, no common theme for supporters, only popular faces. The political movement becomes nothing more than an overblown cult of personality.

Thus, Buchanan chose a party for the wrong reason — money — and it showed. A nasty brawl erupted at the nominating convention between his supporters and those of rival candidate John Hagelin. Hagelin filed a lawsuit to prevent Buchanan from using the Party’s campaign war chest, ultimately losing but costing Buchanan valuable momentum.

Hagelin wound up running for president for the Natural Law Party, whose principles combine New Age mysticism with Summer of Love, hippie-type rhetoric. According to their statement of principal policies, “the first priority of the Natural Law Party will be to create a more orderly, harmonious, and positive society by establishing a group of 7,000 experts practicing Maharishi [Mahesh Yogi’s] Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi Program, including the technique of Yogic Flying.” Hard to believe, I know, but Mr. Hagelin received over 88,000 votes for president.

Hagelin's most significant role in the overall campaign, though, may have been as Reform Party spoilsport. (How you reconcile creating “a more orderly, harmonious, and positive society” with greedy, hardball lawsuits, I’ll never know. But Mr. Hagelin never seemed troubled by it.) Thanks to him, the Reform Party left its convention deeply divided and, like Humpty Dumpty, couldn’t be put back together again. Ultimately, neither Perot nor Ventura endorsed nominee Buchanan. After such a dismal 2000 showing and loss of its federal largesse, it’s hard to see how the party can field a serious presidential contender again.

Interestingly, before he jumped to the Reform Party, Howard Phillips pleaded with Buchanan to run as the Constitution Party’s (then the U. S. Taxpayer Party) presidential candidate, with Phillips as his running mate. But Buchanan, bedazzled by the prospect of a $12 million prize, declined the offer and Phillips, one of the brightest and most articulate men in American politics, headed the ticket instead.

The rest — and Buchanan’s future presidential ambitions — is history.

A key opportunity for a truly substantial third party may have been missed. With the eyes of the media world upon him, had the high-profile television commentator Buchanan made the jump to the Constitution Party, the party would have gained instant credibility. Here was a man who beat Bob Dole in the 1996 New Hampshire primary. Here was a candidate who earned 37% of Republican vote in his primary challenge of George Bush four years earlier. Here was a seasoned competitor and household name.

Such a move would have energized the Constitution Party faithful. Further, millions would have become instantly aware of an emerging third party with real, unshakable principles, faithful to the nation’s founding ideals. True, Buchanan would have foregone $12 million in advertising money, but the free publicity would have been worth many times that. Instead, the valiant Phillips and his Constitution Party ended the campaign with less than 100,000 votes.

Ah, what might have been.

Whatever one believes about Buchanan’s quest for the $12 million Holy Grail, its advertising fruits were singularly unimpressive. The only television ad I saw showed a dying man calling 911 and no one able to understand him because of language barriers. Hardly the stuff to enflame the hearts of men. His radio ads were better — Buchanan the orator appealing to patriotism and the right to life — but seemed too little and too late.

So as the dust settles, the Reform Party lies in wreckage, the Green Party needs Nader to re-up, and the Libertarian Party makes plans to fight another day. And as long as a single soul remembers Haight-Ashbury with fondness, there will be a Natural Law Party.

All told, then, a pretty poor year for third party candidates in general. The major parties' stranglehold on money and media attention is stronger than ever, and their dominance shows no evidence of waning in the near future.

In particular, a golden opportunity to invigorate the one truly promising third party was squandered when Pat Buchanan declined to join the Constitution Party ticket. Would such a move have gained Buchanan the White House? Probably not. But it’s not hard to see how he would have exceeded 0.4 of 1% of the vote, and put the tiny party on its feet. That would have been something worth cheering in this otherwise dismal election.

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