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Malformed Reform platform

REPUBLICANS and Democrats often are criticized for failing to represent all segments of society. People with ideologies on the right, such as political commentator Pat Buchanan and Sen. Bob Smith (I-N.H.), feel squeezed out by the increasingly centrist party. Meanwhile, people on the left feel that there is no room for them in the ever-more moderate Democratic Party.

The growing number of people who are dissatisfied with the two major parties should signify an opportunity for the emergence of a third major party. And, indeed, the Reform Party is in the news more and more, but what role will it play? It is unclear whether it wants to be the party of the left or the right. It is hard to say in what way it wants to "reform" government, or whether it merely wants to welcome everyone with political ambitions.

"If political parties like to boast of having a big tent, this one is beginning to feel a little like a circus," The New York Times editorialized on Sept. 22.

The Reform Party has nearly $13 million to spend on the presidential election. The party gained the money through federal matching funds as a result of Perot's 9 percent showing in 1996. Many possible candidates hope that with this money they can have an impact on the election. Although they realize a victory is very unlikely, a Reform Party candidate could impact whether a Republican or Democrat wins, depending on which side gives him more votes. This could lead the candidates from the major parties to adopt certain planks of the Reform candidate's platform.

The fact that it is unclear which party would be hurt more shows the ambiguity in the Reform Party's platform. Who is leading this party? What is the ideology of this party? The Perot wing is protectionist, while the Ventura wing is for free trade. The New York Times states: "The strange political vacuum at the top of this party is an invitation for any candidate who wants to make plenty of noise and not a little mischief, a conservative helping elect the Democratic presidential candidate or a liberal helping elect the Republican."

A quick survey of the potential Reform Party candidates shows that they have little in common, and have more disparate visions than is typically found in American parties.

Jesse Ventura, governor of Minnesota, said that he will not run for the nomination, but because of his position, high national profile, and party leadership, he will have a significant impact on the selection of the party's nominee. Ventura has sought to offer a middle-of-the-road alternative to the two major parties, supporting such centrist candidates as former Connecticut Sen. Lowell Weicker and former U.S. Rep. Tim Penny. Yet even with his presence, both liberals and conservatives seek the nomination.

Pat Buchanan said it is almost certain he will bolt from the Republican party and strongly suggested that he will run for the Reform Party nomination. Buchanan has raised some eyebrows as to how he fits into the party. Ventura, an outspoken critic of Buchanan, said he doesn't fit in with the Reform Party's ideals - whatever they are - because of his conservative social notions and advocacy for protectionism.

Actor Warren Beatty exemplifies the contrast between these potential candidates. Beatty is a proud liberal who criticized Bradley and Gore as "cautious centrists" in an op-ed in The New York Times a few weeks ago. He advocates bigger government and more social programs, a platform on the opposite end of the spectrum from Buchanan.

The final high-profile potential candidate is Donald Trump. He has written a book, "The America We Deserve," to be published later this year, which apparently outlines his ideas. But as of now, he is the most enigmatic of the group, with no clear issues or opinions. His celebrity status and deep pockets are the only apparent reason there is support for his candidacy.

The party is trying to find an identity in the post-Perot era, and so far has not succeeded. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorialized Sept. 22: "Even in Minnesota, the party has yet to stake out a solid spot on the philosophical spectrum."

These potential candidates have few similarities. They occupy spots from the far left to the far right to off the chart. One thing they all have in common is that they seek national attention, and they need a party with funds and media attention to gain the exposure they desire. If the Reform Party wants to be a real force, it must do more than offer a home for opportunists and disparate ideologues. It must establish a political identity with clear issues and goals.

(Peter Brownfeld's column appears Mondays in The Cavalier Daily.)

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