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Perot May Have Trapped Himself In His Third-Party Machinery

Ross Perot may have walked into a trap of his own devising. By deciding to set up an official political party instead of merely running for president as an independent candidate, Perot will be subject to all the legal difficulties that beset the two major parties. It will be harder now for him to play the reformist outsider. And the state versions of his new party are almost sure to cause problems.

What will he have gained? Practically nothing. Organizing a new political party in these times is like starting a typewriter company; you’re investing in a declining market. Political parties historically had four main roles: control of nominations, financing candidates, filling patronage jobs and creating a cohesive caucus in the Congress and state legislatures.

All but the last role have been reduced in the past 30 years, thanks to one “reform” after another. Primary voters, not party regulars, pick most nominees; candidates’ organizations, not parties, raise most campaign funds; and patronage – after a century of civil service reform – is down to token numbers, and those few are hired by office-holders without much consultation with their party. And the last role – forming legislative caucuses – is not one that will benefit Perot’s Independence Party, since it is unlikely to elect many local candidates.

If we assume that Perot will be able to get his party legally recognized in all 50 states, and that is a big assumption, there still are enormous obstacles to operating the party successfully. Laws governing parties differ widely from state to state. For example, the latitude for a party to give financial support to particular candidates is far greater in a state like Ohio than it is in a state like California. Separate legal teams, and legal procedures, will be needed for each state.

With 50 new state Independence parties will come a certain amount of “independence” for those parties internally. The publisher of the daily political Hotline in Washington, D.C., Douglas Bailey, predicts that “Once Perot creates all these state parties, there is nothing to stop them from running local candidates with their own ideas and their own personal baggage; then Perot loses control.” New York’s Independence Party, which suggested to Perot that he use its name, already plans to slate up to 1,000 candidates.

Perot also may lose some of his self-styled reformer image. In the past, he has wanted us to believe that the two major parties get into trouble so often because their candidates are morally weak and lack his wondrous “common sense.” Only Perot, standing above the fray, was pure.

In reality, most election scandals are the result of some petty infraction or wrong assumption about the nation’s increasingly dense weave of campaign laws. Never before, including the Progressive Era, have so many ethics laws been put on the books. Even with relatively experienced personnel, the Republicans and Democrats cannot help making the kind of petty bookkeeping and judgment errors that, taken out of context and exaggerated by a hostile opponent or the media, can be made to look serious and intentional.

Perot’s United We Stand, America is legally a mere nonprofit organization and, for example, does not have to follow financial disclosure laws. But Perot’s new and official party will be held to the same strict standards as the Republicans and Democrats. His organization will find the reporting of contributions alone to be a tricky challenge. Then will come the scrutiny by the media and political foes. Did anyone contribute more than the permitted $1,000 per person? Was any of the money from a source that someone, somewhere deems disreputable?

Moreover, when something goes wrong, the blame will tend to fall directly on Perot himself, for his party will still be identified as more of a one-man show than any since 1968, when the American Independence Party was organized by and for Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

Indeed, if Perot is the Independence Party presidential candidate, one of the “reforms” most likely to develop wide public interest in 1996 will be ending the advantage allowed for rich individuals like him to buy advertising and organizing talent that other parties must obtain through broad solicitations.

Of course, Perot may persuade Colin Powell to run at the head of the new party, which surely would increase the flow of individual contributions and expand the party’s showing at the polls. What opinion surveys indicate so far is that the Independence Party would do its best with Powell as its nominee. But the ticket still would not win. In contrast, the surveys suggest that Powell as a Republican would win.

This raises another question. Other than Perot’s overvaulting ambition, what substantive reason is there for the Independence Party? Is there some novel insight it brings to a deficient political system – as the new Republican Party did with its clear anti-slavery message in the 1850s?

No, Except for his anti-free trade position, Perot’s main themes, including budget cutting, echo the Republicans. The difference is that they are in office, and he is not. They take the heat; he carps.

As the head of a national party, that stand-foolish role will change. Ross Perot running as an outsider, as in 1992, might make enough of a impression on the electorate to defeat the Republicans’ presidential nominee again, and help re-elect President Clinton. But as the head of an official political party?

Wall, I don’t have to tell you people, that great sucking sound is jest Ross sinking down to the level of the rest of `em!

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.