Dan Phillips: The Reform Party’s Branding Problem and Election 2016

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Dan Phillips, also known as Red Phillips, is a longtime IPR contributor. He published the following article today at EconomicPopulist.org:

Recently I wrote an article regarding Darcy Richardson’s candidacy for the Reform Party nomination. Well a funny thing happened at the Reform Party Convention last weekend. Instead of picking a nominee, they postpone the decision until 8 Aug. It is probably not wise to criticize the decision makers in the party who you wish to influence, but this strikes me as an unwise move. It comes off as amateurish.

That said, this development gives me another week to make the case for my (virtual) friend and fellow third party news blogger, Darcy Richardson. There were five people initially seeking the nomination. Rumor has it that the choice has come down to Darcy Richardson and Rocky de la Fuente.  I believe the Reform Party delegates would be wise to choose Mr. Richardson to represent their party in November, and I’ll touch on the merits of both gentlemen below, but first, I believe some basic Reform Party history is in order.

Again, I hesitate to say much about the history of the Reform Party while touting a candidate who quite literally wrote a book on the Reform Party, but some history is important to my point. The Reform Party as currently constituted has a branding problem. It lacks an identity beyond being the party that Ross Perot created. It would be wise for the Reform Party delegates to keep the branding and identity issue in mind as they select their nominee for President of the United States.

As Tom Knapp, another virtual friend and a potential running mate of Richardson, pointed out in the comment section of the linked news item, Perot’s campaigns in ’92 and ’96 centered around three main issues – balancing the budget, withdrawing from NAFTA and “running the government like a business.” While that was a concrete set of issues, Perot’s campaigns attracted a lot of disaffected voters who may or may not have been on board with every aspect of Perot’s politics, but who saw him and later his party as a vehicle for their dissent.

A lot of Perot’s voters were people who fell into the demographic category known as Middle American Radicals (MARs). While MARs represent a sizable chuck of the electorate, their views are not well represented by either major party. Donald Trump succeeded in the Republican primary, much to the chagrin of his cookie-cutter conservative opponents, largely because he was able to appeal to this segment of voters. (For the record, I wrote an article in July of 2015 soon after Trump had announced making the connection between Trump and Perot.) While MARs are not necessarily budget hawks, especially regarding current programs, they are not big on new budget busting programs either, but MARs are highly skeptical of free trade deals. Also, since MARs are not ideologues or overly concerned with process, the idea of running the government like a business appeals to them, so Perot was more or less a good fit.

While Perot did not run a right-wing campaign, he was generally perceived as a man of the right. He was also heavily associated with the missing POW/MIA effort, especially among people for whom this was a big issue. For this reason as well as the general feel of his campaign as a vehicle for frustration and dissent, Perot’s campaign and later his party, attracted a lot of right-wing populist support that was frankly out of proportion to the actual right-wing character of the campaigns.

In addition to MARs and right-wing populists (there is much overlap between the two), Perot’s campaigns also attracted hardhead centrists and realists types who valued straight talk and viewed the two major parties as plagued by extremism.

These tensions were in evidence fairly early. Perot, for example, was challenged for the Reform Party nomination in ’96 by Richard Lamm, the Democrat Governor of Colorado. Lamm was a Democrat but was a restrictionist on immigration for both economic and environmental reasons and in many ways represented this realist centrist element.

As Tom Knapp also points out, the Reform Party’s branding and identity issues were not helped by the fact that people like Jesse Ventura, who defy easy labeling, gravitated to it as a kind of all-purpose neither of the above vehicle.

These internal tensions came to a head in 2000, when Pat Buchanan decided to seek the nomination of the Reform Party. Buchanan reportedly initially had the backing of Perot, but Perot later mysteriously withdraw his support for Buchanan. In what is now a curious fact of history, Trump briefly sought the Reform Party nomination in 2000 and would have represented the socially moderate faction of the RP against the socially conservative Buchanan but dropped out as it became increasingly obvious that the Reform Party was becoming more and more of an ideological circus tent.

Had Perot continued to back Buchanan throughout the campaign, it is possible he could have smoothed the growing tensions, and Buchanan could have secured the nomination with much less conflict, but without Perot’s backing the 2000 campaign became a pitched battle for the “soul” of the RP. Buchanan secured the right-wing populist element of the RP that was already there as well as brought in a large number of his previously Republican supporters.

For the self-consciously centrist element of the party, however, Buchanan, in rhetoric and demeanor and especially on social issues, represented the supposed extremism of the two major parties they were trying to escape. But without a “centrist” candidate like Trump, they had no candidate to stop Buchanan. This resulted in the ridiculous spectacle of the anti-Buchanan forces getting behind the candidacy of John Hagelin. With all due respect to Dr. Hagelin, who I am sure is a nice guy and someone I would love to have a conversation with, the centrists’ decision to put forth a niche candidate like Hagelin who represents a, shall we say, rather eccentric perspective, as the “acceptable” alternative to Buchanan speaks to the dysfunction that already plagued the party by 2000.

Following Buchanan’s run in 2000, some members of the RP left and formed the America First Party based on a specifically Buchananite platform of immigration restriction, fair trade, foreign policy restraint and social conservatism. Perhaps due in part to the absence of much of the Buchananite element, the RP in 2004, which was by then a shadow of its former self, decided to give its remaining ballot lines to independent candidate Ralph Nader, further confounding the identity/branding issue.

So what is the Reform Party then? Is it a right-wing populist party – Buchanan? Is it a left-wing populist party – Nader? Or is it a budget hawkish centrist party – Perot? According to its Twitter account, “the Reform Party believes in fiscal responsibility, government accountability and government for the people by the people.” While that’s not terribly specific, you can still see both elements residing in that short description.

Here is some unsolicited advice for the Reform Party, from a long time observer of the third party scene. You need to pick an identity and run with it, and just so you know, third party centrism is a loser. The problem with third party centrism is multifaceted. First of all, despite all the hand-wringing by the commentariate that the two parties are dominated by extremes, the reality is that this just isn’t true. While the sides are highly polarized and getting more so over time, they do not represent extremes when viewed objectively from a big picture perspective. Both major US parties are essentially centrist parties that operate within a relatively tight window on taxes, spending, foreign policy, etc. That’s why there is so much passion over social issues where there really is a definite difference and that is even mostly rhetorical rather than actual on the Republican side anyway. Compare US politics to the politics of many European countries where you might have several socialist splinter parties, even a Communist party and a couple of New-Right parties. Both US parties are basically globalist and neoliberal. This is why Trump has caused so much consternation among the Power That Be of both parties; he’s not a globalist neoliberal.

Secondly, third parties in the US are not by nature centrist endeavors. Most centrists, who tend to be practical and pragmatic people, reside in the relative center of one of the two main parties. US third parties attract outliers, and I say that as someone who is sympathetic to the role of third parties. Take, for example, the much vaunted and well-funded effort to place a centrist on the ballot in 2012, Americans Elect. It initially failed to attract any big name centrists such as Colin Powell or Michael Bloomberg, who presumably understood it was a suicide mission that would get them hammered from both sides. Instead, its online primary attracted mostly unserious and fringy candidate, and I say that in as loving a way as possible. While the Reform Party undoubtedly attracted some sincere centrists who were concerned about such things as the deficit and gridlock, a lot of its centrists were ax to grind, chip on their shoulder types who for whatever reason couldn’t tolerate the Democrat or Republican Parties. My sense is that many of them were uncomfortable with Republican social conservatism, which is why they reacted so vehemently against Buchanan as a potential nominee.

Also, budget hawkishness is a tough sell. While many voters endorse budget hawkishness and concern about the national debt in the abstract, they don’t actually want to cut any programs in particular except foreign aid, and they frequently want to increase spending on them. Entitlement reform, an essential element of any attempt to seriously addressing the deficit and unfunded liabilities problem, polls about as well as cancer.

Finally, while the MAR phenomenon and Donald Trump to a substantial degree could arguably be considered manifestations of the radical center, a phenomenon that has found greater expression in Europe than the US, radical centrism is not so much centrist as it is less constrained by a clear ideological framework. The usual expression of centrism in the US is the opposite of radical, it’s self-consciously conventional. Centrist tend to hold to all the acceptable beliefs as determined by the media and elite opinion. Climate change is an example.

The conventionality of American centrism is particularly problematic for an ostensibly populist party, because the dominant manifestation of US centrism is cosmopolitan in orientation and views populism as the realm of yahoos. The disdain of purveyors of approved opinion toward Donald Trump and his supporters illustrates this perfectly. American centrism is for relatively open borders, free trade, and neoliberalism. The extremes they fear are anti-capitalist and pacifist sentiments on the left and social conservative sentiments on the right. One look at the list of potential centrists that Americans Elect was hoping to attract – Jon Huntsman, Condoleezza Rice, Michael Bloomberg, etc. – reveals this dynamic.

If the Reform Party wants to restore itself to its former glory, and by US third party standards it was glory, then it needs to brand itself a populist party that represents the voiceless MARs, and to the degree possible it should avoid identifying itself as either right or left-wing. This is especially true if Donald Trump loses. Trump has been able to exploit the gap between the elite donor class of the GOP and its Flyover Country base on the issues of trade and immigration because he campaigned on a more populist, nationalist agenda that the base does not usually hear from Establishment and movement conservative approved candidates. Populism is where the unoccupied political real estate is, especially if Trump loses and the GOP lapses back to its Court Party ways.

Now back to the two potential Reform Party candidates. In my last article on Mr. Richardson, I described him as an old school liberal populist who actually cares about the economic well-being of working class Americans like liberals used to, whether you liked their remedies or not, before liberalism became the Cultural Marxist echo chamber that characterizes so much of its modern expression.

I do not know much about Mr. de la Fuente except what I could determine from a brief web search. He is a businessman apparently of some means who ran for the Democrat nomination for President this cycle and is currently running in the Florida Democrat Senate primary, a race he would presumably have to drop out of if he wins the RP nomination. I cannot find anything that distinguishes him from a typical modern Democrat. According to Wikipedia, he describes himself a progressive Democrat who was inspired to run for President particularly by Donald Trump who he claims is divisive. He supports a path to citizenship and opposes Trump’s proposed wall. With all due respect to Mr. de la Fuente, the Reform Party needs to attempt to occupy the political real estate that has been opened up by Donald Trump which it, among third parties of any notoriety, is uniquely positioned to do. It does not need to be represented by a Democrat who is parroting tired politically correct boilerplate.

I cannot see how nominating Mr. de la Fuente helps the Reform Party with its branding problem, or how he advances the Reform cause unless they are counting on his apparently deep pockets for ballot access. With the success of Trump’s populist appeal, the last thing the Reform Party needs is a cookie-cutter progressive Democrat whining about Trump being divisive. We already have the mainstream media and the Establishment of both major parties doing that. Darcy Richardson, on the other hand, represents the fiery populism that the Reform Party should embrace and has an extensive history of dedication to the third party cause. Darcy is in this for the long haul? Is Mr. De la Fuente? I hope the Reform Party delegates will carefully consider these matters when they make their decision on the 8th.

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