THE EMERGENCE of a third political party shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. Voters are tired of having a choice of only two candidates - especially when it is hard to find real differences between the two.
With a robust economy and few pressing issues to divide public opinion, there's little forcing candidates to take stands. Instead, much discussion concerns second-tier issues such as campaign finance reform or off-shore drilling - issues that fail to excite the general public. Thus, we've seen the focus shift to the candidates' personal charisma and finances.
Elections largely have become a marketing battle. Each candidate vies to be a media darling, protecting his image while shrewdly maneuvering to hurt his rivals. Such public posturing can be found each day. While announcing his switch from the Republican to the Reform Party Monday, Pat Buchanan derided his opponents, saying, "Candidates with ideas need not apply." ("Buchanan Bolts G.O.P., Announces Reform Party Presidential Bid," The New York Times, Oct. 25).
Vice President Al Gore's campaign has focused on moving past his image as a stodgy, uncaring bureaucrat. He also has tried to distance himself from President Clinton's weak legacy while still capitalizing on Clinton's ability to remain popular. Gore waffled when asked whether he would enlist Clinton's support, stating that he might not ask for his help, before later indicating that he would accept Clinton's backing. This indecision reflects careful image-management on Gore's part.
Meanwhile, the definitive moments of Texas Gov. George W. Bush's campaign have concerned alleged indiscretions. After stating at the start of his candidacy that he would not entertain personal questions, Bush broke down and partially addressed rumors of drug use during his youth - a decision which continues to plague him.
Bush also has received notoriety for refusing to pin down his political stances. His views trickle out gradually, but he hasn't stated any sort of comprehensive agenda.
All this posturing leaves the voters at a loss. Bush, with his comfortable poll position, has little incentive to clarify his views. The Associated Press recently reported on his decision to skip a New Hampshire debate, explaining that "his $57 million campaign kitty and sizable lead in public opinion polls provided no real incentive for a face-to-face encounter with his challengers." ("Republicans - except front-runner - gather for debate," Oct. 22) Bush may be happy but the voters are left out in the cold, with little to shape their opinions.
Not surprisingly, there has been a strong effort to organize a legitimate third party that could impact the national elections. The Reform Party has been garnering media attention for its dogged determination to run someone against the Democrats and Republicans. For the Reform Party, political orientation seems less important than a willingness to run. The current candidates include Buchanan, a longtime Republican commonly referred to as a far right-winger, and Donald Trump, the self-promoting developer who defers to "centrist politics," and who is backed by Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler who is considering running himself.
Having two politicians with very different views in one party may seem odd, but the party's willingness to consider a variety of candidates is wise. Debate would have to occur to result in either Buchanan or Trump's nomination. As Buchanan stated in a fundraising letter, "If, with your support, I can win the Reform Party nomination, we will receive more than $12 million in federal funds. This means we will, at long last, be able to take our message - through debates and advertising - directly to all the American voters in a general election."
The buzz surrounding the Reform Party's intention to provide a viable candidate already has sparked more debate than the Republicans and Democrats have thus far. And although the Reform Party relies on a certain amount of celebrity and public image, it holds the more noble goal of fostering debate while the Republicans and Democrats seem intent to coast on image alone. Hopefully, a Reform candidate can spur serious debate among all three parties and provide voters with the opportunity to make decisions concerning candidates' platforms - not their images.
(Nick Lawler's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)