A primer on the political party founded by Ross Perot and boosted by the governorship of Jesse Ventura
by Elissa Haney
Feeding off the momentum created by Ross Perot's 1992 and 1996 presidential bids, the Reform Party may be poised to achieve a new level of credibility in 2000. The time seems to be ripe for the party, which is still young and in its formative stages. Its growing national support is catching the attention of big-name contenders—especially those whose chances of surviving major-party primaries are slim. Republican and Democratic candidates have also been skirting sensitive social issues to focus on topics like campaign financing, healthcare, social security, and other issues that happen to be at the core of the Reform Party's platform.
The reform party sprouted from Texas oilman Perot's mission to make it to the Oval Office in 1992. Disappointed with the pool of presidential candidates, the self-made billionaire set out to offer voters an alternative in that year's election: himself. He founded the grassroots organization United We Stand America to help fortify his effort and get his name on the ballots in all 50 states. Although Perot finished behind both George Bush and victor Bill Clinton, he walked away with an attention-grabbing 19% of the popular vote.
Perot and his supporters, refusing to allow the excitement of the 1992 race to die, soon went to work organizing the Reform Party. Members hoped it would become a lasting and effective alternative in a political system long dominated by two parties.
The 1996 election was only partly disappointing for the Reform Party. Candidate Perot's 8.5% share of the popular vote did not stack well against the results of his first run, but it was enough to snag federal matching funds for Reform Party presidential candidates in the 2000 election. In addition, the party became eligible for $12,600,000 in federal funding for its 2000 presidential nominee.
The Reform Party got another boost in the 1998 elections when former pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura won the Minnesota gubernatorial race on the Reform Party ticket. Its success brought to a new height, the party suddenly became more attractive to politicians eyeing the presidency.
The party's focus is on governmental and economic reform and deliberately steers away from social issues. According to the founding principles of the Reform Party (as outlined on the party's official Web site) and assertions by Perot, top priorities for the government should include:
- Setting higher ethical standards for the White House and Congress
- Balancing the budget
- Campaign and election reform
- Imposing term limits
- Tax system overhaul
- Revisions to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security plans
- Revising trade and immigration policies to promote jobs in the U.S.
- Lobbying reform
With the Republican race already crowded by the fall of 1999, the Reform Party inherited two big-name players that could bring with them enormous changes. Real-estate mogul Donald Trump and controversial political commentator Pat Buchanan both left the GOP for the Reform Party in October.
Buchanan's defection has stirred up some division in the Reform Party. His supporters could be the key to winning enough popular votes to secure federal funding for the party in 2004. While some party members are glad to have the three-time presidential hopeful joining their ranks, there is also a sense of nervousness. Buchanan's opposition to trade agreements and his advocacy of political reform fit in with the party's platform, but his popularity rests heavily on his socially conservative views. If Buchanan's following floods the party, there will likely be changes in the platform that current party members are not comfortable with.
Also causing some division is the tension between the Reform Party's founder and its highest-elected official. Perot and Ventura had a wrestling match of sorts in July when each supported a different candidate to head the Reform Party. Ventura's candidate, Jack Gargan, emerged the victor in that battle. Round two appears to be just around the corner, however, with Ventura throwing his support behind Trump in the presidential race and Perot silently promoting Buchanan.