United He Stands: Perot's Party Politics

Cartoonists and comedians across the country are rejoicing, for Ross Perot is back. On Meet the Press, Clinton strategist James Carville cackles, "The only thing Perot ought to run for is a psychiatrist's office," and his hosts smile approvingly. After they're done cracking jokes, the "Expectorate" -- Russell Baker's delightfully apt name for the pundits and politicos who define conventional wisdom -- tells us there's little to worry about. At most, by dividing the anti-incumbent vote, Perot will just be a spoiler. Bob Dole worries out loud about his prospects, while a silent White House enjoys its good luck.What's wrong with this picture? Once again, no one is taking Ross Perot -- or the third party he is building or the phenomenon he represents -- seriously. In mid-March, as Dole was solidifying his grip on the Republican nomination, a whopping 45 percent of the public said they were dissatisfied with the choice between him and Clinton and would like to see a third-party candidate. This is hardly surprising. Perot, despite his occasionally bizarre behavior and his weak performance in the Great NAFTA Debate with Vice President Gore in 1993, still draws 16 percent of the vote in a hypothetical three-way matchup. And while it is true that many self-identified 1992 Perot voters tilted Republican in 1994, there is much evidence that the billionaire appeals to many working-class people as well. More than half of his current supporters actually lean toward Clinton, according to one recent survey. Think of lunch-pail Democrats attracted to Pat Buchanan's economic populism.Now imagine the following scenario: It is Labor Day weekend, and Americans are really starting to focus on the upcoming election. They look back at a Republican convention starring an old party war horse with an obviously scripted "vision" of the future who has tolerated fundamentalist and militia-style posturing in and outside the hall. And then they think about how boring the Democratic convention was with its coronation of an incumbent still facing nagging questions about everything from his character to his handling of the economy and foreign affairs. (O.K., maybe things won't be so gloomy, but you get the point.)Then they turn on their TV and see Ross Perot at his Reform Party's first convention. Maybe he is debating former Connecticut Governor Lowell Weicker, who has decided to seek the party's nomination himself (a slim possibility). Or they see Perot touting the candidacy of his friend Tim Penny, the former Congressman from Minnesota (an even slimmer possibility). Most likely, they see the tiny Texan himself promising to "give it everything I have" if the party's members nominate him (which is exactly what he told a Texas radio station March 19). And what they hear is a folksy, common-sense speech condemning the parties for their partisan fighting, gridlock and government shutdowns; for toying with critical programs like Medicare and Social Security; for failing to solve the problems of budget deficits, stagnating wages and disappearing jobs; for being in hock to special interests and blocking real campaign finance reform.And then, to give everything a Bill Gates, user-friendly twist, they watch as perhaps 2 million of their fellow citizens, using touch-tone phones, computer modems and maybe even their TV remote controls (!), vote on who the Reform Party's presidential candidate should be. (Mail-in ballots will be counted, too.) While that is going on, a party official tells the audience that the 800 number they've been flashing on people's screens has already tallied as much as $50 million in small donations and pledges. Whether this is participatory democracy or the first truly electronic Nuremberg rally, it will excite a lot of people.Even without other factors that will complicate the picture further -- including 20 million newly registered voters (thanks to the motor-voter law), Ralph Nader's presence on the Green Party line in California and other states, the odds that Buchanan and/or Weicker will run as independents and the chance that some even darker horse will put herself forward -- the emergence of the Reform Party with Ross Perot as its likely candidate already spells the end of the two-party system as we have known it. The question is, what kind of new choice are we about to get?Not long ago, Joel Rogers, one of the founders of the New Party, came by The Nation's offices for an editorial seminar and told this story: "I had the following conversation with Russ Verney, the director of Perot's Reform Party. [The two parties have common interest in cross-endorsements.] I asked, So Russ, how do you imagine this thing? And what he more or less said was, Well, it's sort of a benign economic nationalism. We're going to focus very, very heavily on social control of the economy and then on building a democracy strong enough to enforce it.... I said, This sounds eerily like the New Party. Have you ever seen -- He says, Seen it? I've read it. You've got the analysis. The problem, Joel, is that I have a couple of billion dollars and you don't have a dime." Rogers tells the story to illustrate how much more the New Party could do if it had more funds (call 800-200-1294 to help), but it does suggest that Perot's people are thinking very creatively about how to win over the electorate. Add to that Perot's disparaging remarks about Buchanan trying his luck with the Reform ticket ("His message is not mine.... If you hate people, I don't want your vote," he told recent interviewers), and you might think there's something to talk about here.Think again. Perot is not a democrat. The saddest thing about his recent history is his nearly single-handed destruction of the largest grass-roots political reform movement to emerge in the United States in a long time. And the process he and his hired hands are engineering for the selection of the Reform Party's presidential candidate leaves much to be desired, which is one more reason other big-name contenders have been balking. Even Gordon Black, the pollster and political strategist who, other than the people actually in Perot's employ, is the man's biggest public booster, freely admits that he is "autocratic."At its peak, Perot's United We Stand America organization had as many as 1.5 million members, says Mick Ringsak, who was on the group's national board from its inception until last July. "We signed a contract saying that we'd never reveal that number," recalls Ringsak, a 53-year-old Vietnam vet and co-owner of a shoe store in Butte, Montana. "The paid staff subverted the volunteers all the time, with few exceptions. It changed from a volunteer organization into one that did the boss's bidding." Today U.W.S.A. is a fraction of its former self. Its own disclosure statements suggest there was an 80 percent drop in membership between 1993 and 1994 alone. Things are even worse now. For example, the Washington state chapter had up to 50,000 members, says Dave Morgan, who was its first elected chairman. "Now there's probably not fifty people who are active here."In late 1994, Morgan and a group of eleven state chairs from all over the Western United States, where U.W.S.A. had its strongest chapters, did try to right the sinking ship. In a series of meetings with Perot and Verney and other top staff in Dallas, they proposed an internal reorganization that would have devolved power to local "teams" of the group's members. "Perot went crazy over one recommendation, which got posted on the Internet, that the regional directors were not effective," Morgan says. The regional directors were Perot's chief trouble-shooters, and along with U.W.S.A.'s state executive directors, they are now the backbone of the Reform Party petition drive to get ballot status in all fifty states. "You either recant or we'll pull your insurance or charter or both, Verney and Perot said to each state chair," Morgan continues. Some of them did drop their criticism, but their spirits were crushed. "We're all just ordinary people," Morgan explains.Perot and his staff claim the petition drive is primarily a grass-roots effort, with "hundreds of volunteers" working on it around the clock. But Mick Ringsak tells a different tale. "Here in Butte, I called all my active volunteers in United We Stand and told them I'd prefer that they not carry petitions." Like many ex-Perot activists, Ringsak is unsure of the third-party route, especially without serious campaign finance reform first. "Then," he continues, "I heard Perot on a local radio show claiming that 'right now we have volunteers busting their butts at the local mall and post office and Safeway store.' So I went down there and didn't find anybody except at the Safeway, where there were four state directors, the paid employees of Ross Perot."Perot is essentially cannibalizing his old organization to build the new one. In addition to shifting almost all the paid staff of United We Stand into the "Committee to Establish the Reform Party" -- same address and phone numbers, but it keeps the Federal Election Commission and the I.R.S. at bay -- Perot's people have even insisted on taking the property, too. Fax machines, computers and the organization's most prized asset, membership lists, have all been reportedly taken over. (Some Ohio activists are fighting this, and they have prompted the F.E.C. to open an investigation of the party's financing.) But given how much of his own money he pumped into the group, Perot can certainly claim it owes him the hardware. Indeed, if it weren't for Perot's financial support, United We Stand would have had a substantial operating deficit in 1994, the last year for which figures are available. That year, the group spent more than $13 million against a total revenue of only $5 million."The Reform Party is a Potemkin village," warns Ringsak. "The public doesn't know what it's getting." Many ex-Perotists speak in exactly the same terms. But despite their criticisms, the party continues to grow. When you've got a devoted sales staff backed up by a few billion dollars, you can sell anything, especially something as vaguely popular as a centrist third party. In Maine, Reform registered almost 35,000 new members, nearly 4 percent of the state's voters. No other third party can claim numbers like these. The Reformers have already qualified in California, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina and Utah, though they have run into legal challenges in Arkansas, Maine and Ohio, where restrictive statutes that favor the existing party duopoly have hindered their progress. But, as Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News, points out, "His lawsuits have a lot of merit. It would be a tragedy for all third parties if they lose."Like a giant new planet wandering into the third-party universe, the Reformers are drawing many of the other, smaller partylets into their orbit. Already, Independence parties in Minnesota and Virginia have signaled that they will join the Reform Party's national convention, as has the National Patriot Party. But Nick Sabatine, the Pennsylvania-based head of the Patriots, is more than a little miffed at how Perot has been conducting himself. "We're carrying petitions for him in three states -- Oregon, Minnesota and Pennsylvania -- but we're not getting any input into the process," Sabatine complains. He also wonders if the Reform Party's leaders have been completely sincere in their description of how interested presidential candidates might get on their ballot. According to Perot, everyone who participates in the forming of the Reform Party will be sent a ballot listing all the declared candidates for the nomination. This will take place sometime early this summer. Anyone who receives at least 10 percent of that vote will be eligible for nomination at the national convention on Labor Day. "On the surface," says Sabatine, who is himself considering a run, "that's a pretty democratic way to choose a candidate." But, he complains, at the same time, the Reform Party is using Perot's name as a "stand-in" on petitions it is carrying in as many as a dozen states, giving him yet one more built-in advantage. "I'd feel more comfortable if he'd drop the facade bullshit and come out and say that he is running, and here's why," Sabatine says.When even devoted leaders in the Perot/third-party orbit talk this way, you know there's more trouble ahead. But this doesn't concern Perot advisers like Gordon Black, who believes that "nearly every great fight against oligarchy was fought by autocratic forces committed to democratic outcomes." As he wrote to me in December, "Perot is autocratic. He does not want to pay a price to every person who comes to him with a special pleading. Most of the people involved in the movement are incapable of organizing it, but they demand to be listened to. If George Washington had spent his time listening to the special pleaders in the Revolution, we wouldn't have a country. Thank goodness that Perot will not listen to his critics." I guess now we know why Perot keeps talking about finding "George Washington the Second" to run for President.

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