Ross Perotís inchoate Reform Party should be in the news a bit this weekend with its first state convention, in Los Angeles. The party is organized in all 50 states and intends to have its presidential ticket on the ballot in all 50, but its deepest organization is in California, which has the lionís share of electoral votes. I remain in regular, almost daily contact with the RP. Russ Verney, who is Perotís right hand man and the RPís national coordinating chairman, flew to Washington from Dallas last Thursday, expressly to meet with me over several hours, discussing the partyís potential and plans in this election year. An impressive fellow, low-keyed and direct, Verney joined Perot after serving in 1991-92 as executive director of the Democratic Party in New Hampshire. He knows what heís doing. Verneyís trip, which had no other purpose than to meet with me, was palpable evidence that Perot is serious about wanting a real contest for the partyís presidential ticket. I have for several weeks been discussing with them my idea of a ďdream ticketĒ of Jack Kemp and General Colin Powell. While I of course have discussed the idea with Jack, presenting it as an option that may ripen in August, he remains as cool and skeptical as almost everyone I know to the notion that the Reform Party has legs independent of Perot.
My interest is based on an assessment I made of Perot in early 1992, one which has not been greatly altered by the strange shape of the Perot campaign that followed. The only change in my opinion, as I have observed him these past four years, is that he may never be able to develop the political skills necessary to function in the Oval Office. He is the most successful entrepreneurial capitalist of my generation, having amassed a $3 billion fortune from a standing start by actually building a business -- as opposed to parleying bets on other businesses. But the intellectual chemistry required of a head of state is almost completely different than that required of a head of a commercial enterprise. Steve Forbes may be able to acquire it. Perot probably will not. He seems to have accepted this personal limitation, having told "Meet the Press" last month that he is probably too scarred to be the RPís presidential nominee. An extremely bright and determined man whose overriding motivation is his patriotism, Perot this time around in national politics genuinely seems willing to construct a mechanism that can elect the next President.
According to Verney, the mechanism they are constructing provides for a nominating process that will be completely secure in eliminating any inherent bias to Perot. The nominating convention will most likely he held in August after the GOP convention in San Diego and before the Democratic Chicago convention. This is because four states require the nominees of all parties filed prior to August 24. Otherwise the RP convention would have been held over Labor Day. It will be the first electronic political convention in history, with voting permitted by e-mail. Only those citizens who signed petitions to qualify the RP on state ballots will be eligible to vote. Those who can vote by e-mail will be able to do so in what Verney says will be a foolproof system. Others will have paper ballots that will also be tallied in a secure system they have devised. The fact that the several hundred thousand people who have signed RP petitions have done so through random contacts in supermarkets and shopping malls thoroughly dilutes the voting weight of the active Perotistas, says Verney. Indeed, Perot has not yet decided whether he will make any attempt to have his own name placed in nomination. If no heavyweights at the level of a Kemp or Powell or Bill Bradley or Sam Nunn appear, presumably Perot will stand in. Otherwise not.
Conventional wisdom has it that there will be a rigid party platform that the nominees will have to embrace in order to be considered. This is not the case, says Verney, who states the only two rigid requirements are that the RP candidates agree to forswear negative advertising against the major party candidates and that they accept no special interest money. They estimate they will be able to generate as much as $30 million in campaign contributions in order to finance the RP ticket, which is probably several times more than would be needed for the brief period between Labor Day and November 5 -- considering the free media exposure a heavyweight ticket would get. The RP will have lines on congressional and Senate races in perhaps 30 states, almost exclusively using those lines to endorse either the GOP or Democratic candidate. Because the endorsements will tend to follow the top of the ticketís commitment to genuine reforms, the swing votes they provide could completely change the complexion of the Congress. That is, the same candidate may be elected in a district or state, but in the competition for votes will wind up with a different mandate.
My enthusiasm for the effort rests on a conviction that neither major party is capable of addressing the electorateís need and desire for fundamental reform. It is not that the two parties are obsolete, but that they are misaligned. The RP could be exactly the mechanism that allows a pivoting of the party institutions, a shake out and realignment. The alignment has been horizontal since 1932, with the advent of the New Deal: Democrats represent more government and Republicans represent less. The new alignment should be vertical, with one party representing mature capital, the other representing young capital. Felix Rohatyn puts it neatly by saying one party should represent the bond market, the other the stock market. Old wealth is risk-averse, conservative, security-minded. Young capital is risk-seeking, entrepreneurial, upward bound. Both are needed for the political economy to be fluid and in equilibrium. As it is, both parties represent the bond market, which is happiest with 2% growth, a balanced budget, and Alan Greenspan at the Fed. Realignment can most easily happen via a third party that is created for the task and then dissolves when it is completed.
It will become clear by August, I think, that no matter how deep President Clintonís difficulties with Whitewater, Bob Dole will not be able to persuade the electorate that they can risk him in the White House with the Republicans in control of Congress. The only alternative to Clinton-Gore will be an RP ticket that can obviously win it all. The electorate will not go for a ticket that simply drains votes from Clinton and magnifies the problem of risking a President Dole and a Speaker Gingrich balancing the budget. My sense is that the electorate also wants the racial divide finally bridged, as an even higher priority than fixing the tax system or public finances. Of all white political leaders in either party, none has greater respect in the black community than Jack Kemp. Of all black political leaders, none has greater respect in the white community than Colin Powell. They are also a perfect combination in terms of the domestic and international security reforms required of the post-Cold War era.
The national political establishment successfully blocked Perot in 1992, both because it naturally fears dramatic change and because it could not trust him to take it easy. There would be less fear of change with Kemp and Powell (or Kemp/Bradley), because there is a greater sense that they know how to manage the pace of change. The political establishment would attempt to fend off this threat if it emerged, pushing both Dole and Clinton in the direction of more rapid change. If they do, Verney assures me that the RP nominating process makes it possible for either Dole or Clinton to get its endorsement. In any event, you should realize the Field of Dreams that Ross Perot is building this year will get serious play before the season is over.