A Third Party Scenario
Jude Wanniski
May 1, 1996


There is a report out that we have been suggesting a Reform Party ticket of Jack Kemp and Colin Powell. It’s true. The idea may seem far fetched, but it is not outside the realm of possibility. It becomes plausible if we can believe Ross Perot is serious when he says the Reform Party should have someone other than himself at the top of its ticket. He told "Meet the Press" April 21 that by the time the RP convention selects a presidential candidate in late summer he himself will be “too scarred” and that he expects a “fresh face” to appear. Perot has repeatedly used the “Field of Dreams” metaphor: “Build it and they will come,” indicating he would prefer to sit in the grandstand and watch. He also has said the RP will raise the funds to finance its ticket this summer. Such a fund would not have to be very big, as the campaign would only run between Labor Day and November 5. A Kemp-Powell ticket would get massive attention without a dime being spent on 30-second spots. A few infomercials would be sufficient to complement the free media. It is not hard to imagine such a combination cutting a 40% or even a 50% swath out of the center of the electorate, drawing from both major party candidates, attracting millions of voters who otherwise would stay home, and winning with relative ease.

How might such a ticket be hatched by Labor Day? Taking the polls for what they are worth, at the moment President Bill Clinton seems an easy re-election winner in November over Senator Bob Dole, who will be the GOP nominee. At the same time, two-thirds of those polled say they are unhappy with the major-party options and half say they are not happy with the President’s handling of the economy. Yet the President has a 20-point lead over Senator Dole in the matchups, almost all of it due to the enormous gender gap in the electorate. Men are willing to give Dole a shot at the White House, but women will not trust him in sufficient numbers to protect the social safety net against the depredations of a demonized Newt Gingrich and a GOP Congress. Dole of course is trapped in the GOP’s austerity wing by his own history and the web of alliances in which he snared himself in order to win the party nomination. The gender gap is not going to close, which is why there is now such panic in Republican ranks: With an easy Clinton re-election, the House of Representatives could return easily to Democratic hands. The Senate could go Democratic too, although the voters then run into the opposite problem of giving Bill and Hillary another shot at upsizing government. This is why Beltway GOP strategists like Bill Kristol and Bill Bennett are urging Republican candidates everywhere to distance themselves from Dole. Other GOP pros, such as Eddie Mahe, are not yet throwing in the towel on Dole, but in this scenario we shall assume that Dole may never get the traction he needs to win.

It is the sense of hopelessness of Dole’s position that might now incubate the idea of a Kemp-Powell ticket. It would hatch in late summer if the business establishment concludes that it is preferable to a Clinton re-election or a Perot wild card that produces hopeless gridlock for another four years. There are some signs of this already, which we can read into Felix Rohatyn’s astonishing essay in the April 11 Wall Street Journal. A kingpin of the Democratic Establishment, Rohatyn set forth an idea of centrist compromise that can only be practically achieved by a Third Party -- one that is formed to achieve specific national objectives and dissolves once those objectives are achieved. In his own way, President Clinton is as trapped by the realities of the Democratic establishment as Dole is of the GOP’s. As much as he might like to lead a fundamental reorganization of the federal government -- its tax and monetary policies in particular -- he is even more surely ensnared in a web of alliances that can’t be broken. We have a Gordian knot that may only be cut by an independent sword.

When Jack Kemp early last year decided not to compete, largely because of the daunting expense, the idea of a Steve Forbes candidacy to fill the void seemed far-fetched. Forbes did as well as he could as a rank amateur, carrying the growth banner forward before being cut down by his inexperience. It remains for the Reform Party to force fundamental reform onto the 1996 agenda and Kemp now may be the only man capable of filling that void. Does Perot want the kind of reform that Kemp would like to see? Believe it or not, I think so. The problem with the scenario does not involve issues. Even on trade issues, the differences they have are of perspective and emphasis, a conclusion I drew in the three-hour, man-to-man meeting I had with Perot in his Dallas office in April of 1992 -- which began my brief involvement in his campaign that year. It was Perot who called me, after an earlier long talk he initiated with Ted Forstmann. Perot’s campaign, like Steve Forbes’, flew apart simply because of inexperience. His life training did not prepare him for presidential politics, any more than it prepared him to play quarterback for the Detroit Lions ŕ la George Plimpton. Recall that Perot hired as his campaign manager Ed Rollins, who had been a Reagan/Kemp operative, because of his attraction to the growth wing of the GOP. When I suggested a Kemp-Powell ticket to one of Perot’s associates last month, his enthusiasm for the idea was genuine. Perot especially likes Kemp’s brand of optimism and inclusiveness and his distaste for negative politics.

Yes, General Powell already has rejected a ‘96 run for national office. His compatibility with Kemp in an independent reform effort might lead Powell to reconsider, if the idea develops in the incubation process. Robert Novak recently reported that Powell now regrets having joined the Republican Party, having watched its performance in the last several months. A Kemp-Powell partnership on the Reform ticket would make sense. Kemp does have the political experience to lead the ticket, and would not be seen as needing Powell to appeal to “the black vote.” Powell’s strength on military/diplomatic international policy would add to the team’s appeal in being able to bridge the troubling racial divide in the country. As an alternative to General Powell as a Kemp running mate, Senator Bill Bradley’s name comes up in my soundings. This would bridge the partisan divide. Bradley announced his political retirement out of disenchantment with partisan gridlock. The combination is not as compelling as Kemp-Powell ticket, but it is also an attractive idea.

The real problem with the whole scenario, which makes it far-fetched, lies not in the issues, but in the personalities. For the “Field of Dreams” idea to get to first base, Perot would have to agree that after he builds the ballpark, he will watch from the grandstands, maybe even the bleachers. The major party candidates, after all, would exploit every opportunity to sit Kemp in Perot’s lap, making it appear he is beholden to Perot’s personal agenda. At the moment, I can find nobody who believes with me that Perot would be content with this kind of contribution, satisfied with the role of making it possible to break the gridlock of the Establishment parties. The consensus I find is that Perot would insist on being in the batter’s box with Kemp and Powell. Yet the very idea that something like a Kemp-Powell scenario might be possible this year is reason enough to get it into circulation. One way or another, Perot’s presence will be felt this year. If the GOP and Bob Dole continue to show the haplessness they now exhibit, a grass roots movement for a serious reform ticket might take off as Perot’s candidacy did briefly in early ‘92 -- this time with a real chance of going all the way. Given the current state of political affairs, it doesn’t hurt to dream.