Memo To: Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: No Room for a Third Party?
You are absolutely right in saying the Reform Party has to be different than the two Establishment parties, but I don't think you appreciate the fact that if the Reform Party is to become a going concern -- one that lasts into the future -- it will have to replace the Democratic or the Republican Party. One of the reasons the United States is the only superpower on the planet is because of the political rules that evolved from our Constitution. The winner-take-all rule in the Electoral College FORCES THE TWO PARTIES TO COME TO A CONSENSUS on the direction they believe the country should take. It is like a family with a Daddy and a Mommy, who have to hash out the family plans and direction. Once you introduce a third force in the family, consensus becomes harder and harder to find as the added elements play the dominant players against each other. Ross Perot hit the political scene at exactly the right time, when both Republicans and Democrats were going in the same direction -- the direction favored by the Establishment, but not by ordinary people.
Perot's explosion on the political scene in early 1992 -- on that famous Larry King show -- was the result of his statement on the show that the first thing he would do would be to get a clean sheet of paper and write on it a completely new tax code. He soared in the polls, dropped out of the race when his campaign manager Ed Rollins made a mess of it, and came back as a budget-balancer. This was not what excited the population in the first place, and he did not get very far with it. It remains the staple of the RP, while the simple tax system was picked up by Steve Forbes. The RP's national agenda has lost its cutting edge, Governor, and I don't think you can make one as easily as you think, because there are populist candidates now appearing on the scene in the major parties. When I see you thinking about Lowell Weicker as your candidate, for goodness sakes, I think that would be the quickest way to dissolve the RP. Weicker has been a has-been for many years, and there is no point trying to bring him back to life. Perot would still get 10% of the vote if he were the candidate. Weicker would get no more than a 2% protest vote.
The answer is to establish the RP as a third force in politics the same way the Conservative Party has in New York State. Instead of putting up your own candidate, who will always lose except in extraordinary situations like Minnesota's, you should design the RP to endorse one candidate or the other of the major parties. You would have to do some work to enable your choice to collect votes on the RP line that could be added to the major party aggregate, but that should not be too much trouble. If you did that, both parties would have to watch you over their shoulders, to pick a candidate and an agenda that would appeal to your party. In 2000, for example, you could offer the RP nomination to the man or woman who wins the GOP nomination or the man who wins the Democratic nomination, whomever is closest to the RP's views. That's the only way I think you can continue to throw your weight around. You have almost $13 million in the kitty for 2000. But unless your RP line does at least as well in 2000, those monies will dry up down the line and so will the party. I've done a lot of thinking about this, Governor, as Perot called me back in early 1992 for advice on how to succeed at the national political level. I recommend you read my book, The Last Race of the Twentieth Century, which covers a lot of this ground. In 1996, I'd actually thought of persuading my friend Jack Kemp into running for the RP nomination, believing that would be one time the party could pull off a win at the highest level. Of course, Jack wound up on the GOP ticket with Bob Dole, and had almost no opportunity to develop his own issues.
P.S. Here is a commentary from a friend of mine, Bruce Bartlett, who writes regularly for the National Center for Policy Analysis:
Last weekend's Reform Party convention brought together activists from across the ideological spectrum yearning for an alternative to the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. According to a recent poll, 57 percent of Americans now agree it would be a good idea to have a viable third party. Unfortunately, those supporting third party efforts are wasting their time if their goal actually is to elect a president. That is basically guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, which requires an absolute majority in the Electoral College or, failing that, a majority of state delegations to the House of Representatives.
At the national level, electing a Jesse Ventura -- who was elected Governor of Minnesota with a bare plurality -- is a virtual impossibility. In almost all cases, the winner in the Electoral College needs to carry a majority of the popular vote as well.
Although there are exceptions -- Bill Clinton got just 43 percent in 1992 and 49.2 percent in 1996 -- the winning candidate must have a sufficiently broad geographic base to get 270 electoral votes. This virtually ensures there can never be more than two major parties. Says political scientist Judith Best, "The electoral-count system is not neutral; it has a built-in bias in favor of the two-party system, since it discriminates against both sectional and national third parties."
The two-party necessity also tends to force all politicians toward the middle. This centrism is necessarily frustrating for those with strong ideologies or absolutist agendas. As the legal scholar Alexander Bickel put it, "The choice in the general election between two candidates either of whom can satisfy most people, or at least radically dissatisfy very few, always leaves some of us with no choice at all."
Source: Bruce Bartlett, senior fellow, National Center for Policy Analysis, July 28, 1999.