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Chapter Four: Genesis of Issues


Every American third party wants to think it can be like the Republicans of the 1860s who displaced the Whigs to become a majority party. The Republican Party achieved this by embracing the cause of anti-slavery. By implication, aspiring third parties today need to find a burning issue to put before the voters. The Reform Party began with Ross Perot’s candidacy for President in 1992, building on the fact that Perot was a successful businessman who might bring his managerial expertise to Washington. His business background and concern for MIA’s from the Vietnam war gave this new party a conservative flavoring. The issue of reducing federal budget deficits was important. Yet, there was also a left/ populist appeal in Perot’s opposition to NAFTA. Whether this bundle of issues could translate into a platform for a majority party is anyone’s guess. Due to inconsistent campaigning, Perot did not win the election.

Jesse Ventura, elected Governor of Minnesota on the Reform Party ticket, was a celebrity known for his pro wrestling career. Ideologically he exploited the intense partisanship in state politics. He scored points during the gubernatorial debates by making witty remarks about Republican Norm Coleman’s and Democrat Skip Humphrey’s partisan positions. Ventura styled himself a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. He believed in balancing budgets and returning excess revenues to the taxpayers, but at the same time was pro-choice and open to the idea of legalizing marijuana. Critics charged that Ventura was merely an entertainer. Although he was the Reform Party’s endorsed candidate for Governor, Ventura ran his own campaign operation. Party endorsement gave him a certain claim to participate in the debates and, more importantly, a taxpayer subsidy earned by Dean Barkley’s respectable showing in the 1996 Senate race. Once he found a bank willing to lend him money against receipt of the subsidy funds, Ventura could afford to hire Bill Hillsman, Paul Wellstone’s original ad man, to produce the cute television commercials which aired on the weekend before the election and pushed him over the top.

Governor Ventura was personally popular but had poor coattails. The Independence Party (as the Minnesota Reform Party was renamed in 2000) failed to elect a single state legislator although one DFL state senator switched allegiance to it. The Minnesota Green Party was meanwhile achieving better electoral results. Ventura kept everyone guessing about his reelection plans until the last moment. Then, in the wake of news reports about his son’s wild parties at the Governor’s mansion, he withdrew from the Governor’s race. Tim Penny, a former Democratic Congressman and advisor to the Ventura administration, received the Governor’s blessing to succeed him.

Penny positioned himself in what he called “the sensible center” between the Republicans and Democrats. His record in Congress as a fiscally conservative Democrat - a.k.a., the party of “big spenders” - brought credence to that claim. Suddenly, a half dozen current or past state legislators, many of whom were moderates denied endorsement by their parties, announced that they would switch to the Independence Party. Penny picked one of them, State Senator Martha Robertson, a Republican from the suburbs, to be his running mate.

Most of this switching took place at the time of the Independence Party state convention. Suddenly the party’s prospects of thriving in the post-Ventura era seemed bright. However, I had my doubts that a third party could grow to majority status on the basis of not being the other two parties or avoiding their respective extremes. It had to stand for something in its own right. What did the Independence Party stand for? When discussions at the convention failed to provide a clear answer, I thought that I would give this a shot.

It seemed clear to me that a political party which is based primarily on running celebrity candidates or attracting defectors from other parties does not give its rank-and-file members a good reason to participate. Yes, that type of candidate occasionally wins - but what is the point? People join political parties because they want a certain point of view to become public policy. They may have a vision of using government to bring about a better society or they may have something in mind which they wish to eliminate. In any event, a political party, to attract popular support, needs a core of ideas which its members can support. Otherwise, it becomes simply an organization which dispenses policy favors when its candidates are successful - like some other political parties which shall remain nameless.

The Independence Party had a platform, of course. My friend, Alan Shilepsky, chaired the committee which produced it. This platform consisted of twenty-six items ranging from support for developing hydrogen-based fuels to extending the time for the state’s ballot access petitioning. Some of the main planks had to do with reforming the process of campaign financing, establishing a unicameral legislature, paying down the national debt, and instituting popular referendums and initiatives. These were all worthy ideas adopted by “no less than sixty percent of convention delegates”. In addition, the Independence Party had six “principles”: integrity, dignity, justice, responsibility, service, and community - again, worthy ideals.

Something was missing in this approach. There may have been too many planks to leave a clear impression what the party stood for. The party had to take a position on one or two questions of transcending importance to voters, hopefully something which did not duplicate what the Democrats or Republicans were supporting. Where was that new issue, analogous to the abolition of slavery, which the Independence Party might ride to majority status?

In seeking to identify major issues, I thought it useful to review the core values of the Democrats and Republicans. The Republicans seemed to me to have a primarily economic focus. In the power struggle between labor and management, or between rich and poor, or in what is sometimes called “class warfare”, the Republicans sided with management and the rich. The Republican Party was a party favoring business interests. It supported minimal regulation and taxation of business, tax breaks for taxpayers in all brackets (but not cuts in the Social Security tax, which are targeted to working people), abolition of the capital-gains tax and the estate tax, and opposed such proposals as increasing the minimum wage.

The Democrats, on the other hand, were, in my view, no longer a party of organized labor, counterbalancing business interests. This was the politics of a half century ago. Since the 1960s, the Democratic Party had taken on a social and cultural focus. This was a party whose values were forged in the Civil Rights movement. In 1960, when Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy telephoned southern politicians to let Martin Luther King out of jail, King’s father and other African Americans went over to the Democrats. The Democrats seeking their political support, in turn, catered to African Americans as a disadvantaged group. Other groups followed - women, gays and lesbians, disabled persons, newly arrived immigrants. All these groups of people faced economic or social discrimination and needed friends in government - i.e., Democrats - to help them.

Therefore, the ideological rift in American politics was not symmetrically balanced. The Republicans, focusing upon the struggle between economic-interest groups, were dominant in that sector. The Democrats, focusing upon social and cultural conflict within society, were dominant in the other. “Liberal” and “conservative” meant two different things depending on the sector. My idea was to oppose the Democrats’ and Republicans’ core values in equal measure. On the economic front, the Independence Party might oppose government policies which cater to business at the expense of labor. On the social and cultural front, it might oppose identity politics. While this approach may seem negative, so was opposition to slavery.

The reality is that appealing to business interests would not work as an issue for our party because the Republicans were already there. Neither would appealing for support among all those birth-determined, victimized groups within the post-Civil Rights coalition; the Democrats already had a lock on their votes, even so wooden a candidate as Al Gore. The Independence Party had to stake out another position to claim political space for itself. The party had to provide another option for voters who were not content with the existing politics. This was not negativity for the sake of being negative but a recognition that unopposed positions tend to move toward an abusive extreme.

In reality, the two major parties have moved toward a fusion of the dominant position in both sectors. While the Republicans are the party of business, they are far from being a party opposed to identity politics. Still hoping they can capture the African American vote, they make gestures of sympathy in that direction. While the Democrats are a party that is friendly to socially disadvantaged groups, they are also open to support from big business, especially the so-called “New Democrats”. So it is all one big party with nuanced bipartisan differences.

Can the Independence Party enter the partisan fray with yet another nuance, remaining calm and collected, taking pains not to upset anyone? I said to all who would listen: attack both the Democrats and Republicans at their core. Attack them on all fronts as hard as you can. Don’t worry about being realistic. Attack, attack, attack, and then attack some more. Then maybe reassess after the smoke clears. A new politics cannot afford to be cautious or approach ends piecemeal. Audacity must be our stock in trade.

In that spirit, I chose for my campaign platform two issues which would be anathema to each of the two major parties. Anathema to the Republicans, the party of business, was the statement: “I believe that the Federal Government should reduce the standard workweek to 32 hours by 2010.” Anathema to the Democrats, party of the protected classes, was my statement: “I believe in the full citizenship, dignity, and equality of white males,” to which were added the words “and of everyone else, too.” In summary, I would make my campaign as obnoxious to the present political establishment as possible. The personal challenge for me would be to see if I had the courage to deliver these messages without evasion or embarrassment. It was not worth my time in becoming a political candidate to seek only minor changes.

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