Jesse 'The Gov' Ventura
In recent years, political observers and pollsters like Thomas Edsall and Stanley Greenberg have argued that the only way for Democrats to win elections in these crucial swing districts is to pander to their conservative prejudices. There is a straight line that runs from Greenberg's 1980s study of suburban Detroit's blue-collar Macomb County to Bill Clinton's positions on the death penalty and welfare.
But now Jesse Ventura has shown that an independent candidate can appeal to these same voters without having to charge to the right. While he made distrust of big government a central theme of his campaign, he also promised to defend and improve the biggest government program of all: public K-12 education. And he showed that voters will rally to a candidate who is forthrightly in favor of choice and gay rights--if he is "one of us" and not another "suit." What remains to be seen is whether his professed opposition to subsidies for daycare and higher education will offend his working-family base, or if his connection to that base will lead him to temper those views.
In the meantime, Ventura's victory has opened a whole new vein for presidential speculators. Could the national Reform Party pick the two-party lock on presidential politics in the same way that Ventura shocked the Democrats and Republicans in Minnesota? Could a socially liberal, fiscally conservative, anti-establishment, pro-campaign finance reform, working-class hero go all the way? The major parties would undoubtedly fight hard to exclude such a candidate from the debates, but in 2000 the Reform candidate will be the beneficiary of perhaps $18 million in public financing, which will insure some real exposure.
Ventura has vociferously ruled out such a bid in 2000, citing his promises to the voters of Minnesota. And the guy has to prove he can govern well before anyone will take him seriously beyond the state. But Ventura's attitude toward the national Reform Party has clearly changed since his win. Beforehand, he told me that he wanted to "break off" from the party because its leaders weren't serious about building a grassroots third party. "They have only focused on Ross Perot and the national level--all their other elections are just cannon fodder." As leaders of the Minnesota Reform Party, Dean Barkley and Phil Madsen--key organizers of the Ventura campaign--had unsuccessfully battled the Dallas-based party over the issue of internal democracy. On Meet the Press, Ventura called for Perot to make room for "fresh blood" in time for 2000.
But now Barkley, perhaps Ventura's closest adviser, says the Governor-elect's position has "evolved" and no break is in the offing. "He wants to wait and see what Russ Verney [the party's national chairman] and Perot have in mind with the nominating process. Hopefully, there will be a meeting with them so they can talk heart to heart about how to build the party," Barkley says. "A viable national third party is still our goal." It seems as if the Minnesotans think they may be able to turn the Reform Party into one.
Because it now has ballot status in only seventeen states (down from thirty-five before the fall elections), the party has announced that whoever wants its nomination will have to qualify as an independent presidential candidate in enough of the remaining states to win a hypothetical electoral-vote majority. That puts a premium on contenders with real grassroots appeal or the deep pockets to finance a state-by-state ballot drive. Stay tuned for more fireworks--maybe even a battle for control.