America's third party meets amid anger and vitriol

Click to follow
The Independent US

It was just another day in the life of the Reform Party. With no agreed candidate to run for president, much less a running mate or a platform of settled policy, the party's two seemingly irreconcilable factions shouted at each other, swung their fists and, when the police came to break up the fight, marched off in different directions threatening lawsuits and all manner of more intimate forms of revenge.

It was just another day in the life of the Reform Party. With no agreed candidate to run for president, much less a running mate or a platform of settled policy, the party's two seemingly irreconcilable factions shouted at each other, swung their fists and, when the police came to break up the fight, marched off in different directions threatening lawsuits and all manner of more intimate forms of revenge.

That was Tuesday. Today at least in theory, the party that once hoped to become the force that would break the Democrat-Republican duopoly in United States politics opens its national convention in Long Beach, California, in an atmosphere of blood-baying anticipation more commonly associated with prize fights than with political coronations.

In the blue corner stands Pat Buchanan, erstwhile scourge of the Republican Party, virulent free-trader, and hero to white supremacists, Jewish conspiracy theorists, anti-abortionists and prayer-breakfast isolationists. He has the advantage of national prominence, the crucial support of the Reform Party's chairman, Gerald Moan, and a majority - albeit a contested one - of the party's national committee.

In the red corner, meanwhile, is the altogether less pugnacious figure of John Hagelin, a libertarian quantum physicist with a penchant for transcendental meditation. He is the hastily presented alternative to Mr Buchanan, ardently championed by those members of the Reform Party who want nothing to do with neo-Nazis or Christian fundamentalists and who remain true to the secular, reformist agenda of their founder, the Texas billionaire Ross Perot.

To say the two sides have no common ground is an understatement. Reform Party politics has come to resemble the schisms of the medieval papacy, all factionalism and antipopery, with a healthy dose of brawling thrown in too.

It appears that Mr Buchanan will formally win the nomination, and the $12.6m (£8.4m) in federal campaign money that goes with it. But it also appears that the victory will be pyrrhic at best: he will represent the Reform Party in name only, will be subject to unceasing attacks from his opponents within the movement and can probably expect no more than a blip on voter radar screens come election day on 7 November.

The Hagelin faction intends to hold its own separate convention and, possibly, run its own presidential campaign. The leader of this faction, the party's secretary, Jim Mangia, has argued for months that Mr Buchanan has strong-armed his way to the nomination, sent out nomination ballots to people ineligible to vote in them and betrayed Mr Perot's founding spirit.

All of which is a far cry from Mr Perot's 1992 presidential campaign, when his platform of deficit reduction and opposition to unfettered free trade won him 19 per cent of the national vote. Mr Perot has ducked out of Reform Party business almost entirely in the past couple of years and will not be making an appearance at Long Beach.

His interest waned consid-erably when the wrestling champion Jesse Ventura was unexpectedly elected governor of Minnesota on the Reform Party ticket in 1998. Mr Ventura grabbed the limelight, only to walk out of the party in February because of differences with the Perot faction.

With the party desperate for a high-profile presidential candidate, Mr Buchanan was able to beat off challenges from the likes of Donald Trump, the New York real estate developer, and impose his brand of radical fire-brand conservatism on a sceptical party base. For a while he was allied with the Trotskyite Lenora Fulani, a marriage made in hell if ever there was one, before busting up with her and going it alone.

Mr Buchanan and Mr Mangia have been exchanging incendiary e-mails throughout. Mr Mangia claims to have received death threats from the Buchanan camp. Of course, none of this is impressing voters, and the Reform Party is polling little more than 1 per cent nationwide. If anything, Mr Perot's mantle has passed to Ralph Nader, the consumer rights advocate running on the Green Party ticket. Third-party politics in the US remains as elusive as ever.

Comments