Perot's Virtual Convention

When the Populists came together in 1892 for their first national convention, it took them more than a week to produce their platform. But that was to be expected.American third parties, after all, are less about power than ideas. And American third-party founding conventions are invariably about delegates getting those ideas right -- reconciling differing perspectives, honing their common critique.So it has been from the Free Soilers and the Prohibitionists to the Socialists and the Libertarians.Or so it was until Sunday in Long Beach, when the Reform Party gathered for its founding convention and completely neglected to discuss, let alone ratify, a statement of principles.More remarkably yet, not a single delegate seemed to notice the omission.It's not that the Reform Party doesn't have its differences, as Ross Perot, Richard Lamm and their bands of supporters demonstrated on Sunday. Lamm, the former Democratic governor of Colorado, continued his bid to become the Dr. Malthus of American politics, at times depressing even his own cheering zealots into stunned silence. The first silence came in response to his campaign biopic's proud recounting of Lamm's decision as newly-elected governor to extricate Colorado from hosting the 1976 Winter Olympics, thereby saving the state untold millions. With the Atlanta games still green in memory, a quizzical hush fell over Lamm's supporters. It fell again when Lamm castigated Clinton for "demoniz[ing] and vilif[ying] a moderate Republican proposal to reform Medicare." Either his supporters were simply confused, failing to recognize in Lamm's description the Gingrich proposal to gut Medicare, or they did recognize it and thought it best to let it pass. A stern and frugal people, Lamm adjured, would not allow such indulgences as mass entitlements or rampant immigration to sap the nation's strength. Lamm's daughter Heather delivered one of his seconding speeches, and brought the crowd to silence yet again when she said of her cohort, "We are the offspring of the people who fought for civil rights." She might have struck a chord among Lamm's followers, but the majority of the Reformers -- a disproportionately elderly, gentile, lower-middle-class and to a person white -- stirred uneasily in their seats. While Lamm's gloomy outlook silenced the convention, Perot's people came to holler, and Ross tossed them red meat. He got his loudest response when he went after NAFTA, after the companies that have taken American jobs and exported them to the Third World. That was what his Reform Party was about; he even took pains to assure his followers that he wouldn't end Medicare.Indeed, there was something peculiarly poignant about Perot's defense of Medicare before this particular crowd in this particular town. If there is a spiritual home of entitlements for the elderly, it's Long Beach. L.A. was the most Protestant of large American cities up through mid-century; and Long Beach was the most Protestant part of L.A., teeming with retirees in flight from the Midwestern winters. And when they lost their savings in the '30s, they followed the call of Francis Townsend, a Long Beach dentist who'd proposed a somewhat cockeyed old-age pension plan, and who built a nationwide movement, aligned with Huey Long, that mixed economic good intentions with a simmering resentment of cosmopolitan elites..Sunday's Perotistas were the new Townsendites, aging middle- class populists, suspicious of elite opinion, and happy to be sealing themselves inside an anti-cosmopolitan cult. To be enamored of Perot '96, after all, requires a greater suspension of critical faculties than was required when Perot was fresh, and unknown in '92.Between the Lammites and the Perotistas, then, runs an undercurrent of class war. As the meeting ended, one burly Ross-is-Boss guy stood by the door and buttonholed as many delegates as he could, shouting, "Lamm supported NAFTA! Lamm supported NAFTA!" The upscale deficit hawks and the downscale, angry, xenophobic outsiders -- Buchananites but for their aversion to the Christian Right's theocracy -- were two different tribes in one small party.Yet they didn't duke it out. Oh, their candidates will now compete in a week-long balloting by mail, phone and email, the results to be announced at Part II of the convention -- the pageantry part -- next Sunday in Valley Forge. But they didn't bestir themselves to advance or vote on their conflicting perspectives. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that this party is forming four years late, and it's harder to get a fight going over a new institution that may already be in decline. For one thing, '92's issue doesn't play as well in '96: Lamm and Perot may agree that the deficit is the source of all the evil, but the deficit has been greatly reduced since Perot first ran. Indeed, the U.S. has the lowest deficit, as a share of GDP, of any major industrial power. For another, the party's founder and funder is widely viewed as a fruitcake. This sort of thing takes its toll. On Sunday, the balconies at the Long Beach Convention Center were almost empty. Four years ago, they would have been packed.More fundamentally, though, the Reform Party doesn't seek to reform politics so much as it wants to abolish it. In Perot's cosmology, there aren't rival viewpoints that lead to different policies. There are simply problems and solutions -- his -- and reaching a solution is a technical matter. "I've spend 40 years designing complex systems with cost-effective means," he told the delegates. "So without realizing it, I've been training for this job [the residency] for 40 years!" The way President Perot would go about fixing our social ills, he continued, would be to "put together a task force of leading experts," and have them come up with a plan, subject that plan to a cost-estimate, try it out in pilot programs.... It's an engineering question, he chirped. It's like building a car.It is if we all agree Perot should drive. The notion that one team inspired, say, by the ideas of Frederick Hayak and another inspired by the vision of Michael Harrington would come up with different plans is incomprehensible to the Perotista mind. Leadership is just a question of competence and good will -- or, in Perot's case, brilliance and a heart of gold. In one of the more remarkable episodes in modern presidential campaigns, Perot was introduced Sunday by some mind-boggling testimonials to his good works. A sergeant wounded during the Gulf War, who was saved by Perot's insistence on flying in specialists, was trotted out to the stage. Debbie Kraus, an Arkansas Reform Party, leader told how Perot had flown her sister to Dallas to treat her aneurysm; the sister then testified on film to Perot's life-saving benevolence. "Can you imagine what this man could do as president?" Kraus asked. Even in this shameless time, the personal has seldom been used to so politically.It is, in the end, a party of supplicants. For three hours, the "delegates" sat listening, with no opportunity to speak, in a room without floor mikes. Their role was simply to cheer. Now -- along with the members who stayed home and subjected themselves to the proceedings on C-SPAN -- their role is simply to vote. They will not meet to discuss or debate the choice. They will not form groups to promote their perspectives. That would be politics, which has nothing to do with the Reformers.When it was over, the Lamm people I spoke with were quietly appalled at Perot's performance -- but not at a convention that had afforded them no voice. The very idea of political participation was alien to one group of young Lamm backers with whom I talked. "I guess founding conventions could include delegates more," one young man concluded after thinking it over.Not so the Perotistas. "Look," said one elderly man as his wife nodded beside him, "Ross is brilliant. And we're here to back him." He then proceeded to tell me how the government had cheated him out of his water rights. Part I -- the deliberative part -- of the Reform Party's founding convention was over. And now, to quote an immortal stage direction from a Ring Lardner playlet, the curtain is lowered for seven days to denote the lapse of a week.

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