It’s tempting to sneer at former-pro-wrestler-turned-Minnesota-Governor Jesse Ventura for announcing that he will not seek re-election this fall after serving just one term in office. After all, Ventura took the political stage with much bravado; now, after all his chest-thumping, it’s hard to feel sorry for him as he walks away from the fight.
But before we bury Jesse, let us praise him too. First of all, he demonstrated that the public’s desire for more choices outside the two-party system is real. By winning against the odds, he gave people in other states hope that they, too, could shake up the entrenched status quo.
It’s no coincidence that we’re seeing a bumper crop of serious third-party gubernatorial candidates this year in other states, including Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Mexico and California. Some of these candidates could do well, especially those running in places with public financing, election-day voter registration and fair-minded media–the sorts of small-d democratic conditions that helped Ventura over the top in 1998.
Second, Ventura and his party colleagues in Minnesota showed that tripartisan government could be a good thing. The stale two-party debate was enlivened, the powerful lobbies who dominate state politics had to contend with someone they couldn’t buy and the public was often engaged by Ventura’s unpolitical and brutal honesty.
As a result, on some issues Ventura won meaningful changes. Funding for K-12 public education was de-linked from property taxes, a reform that portends fairer educational opportunities for all Minnesotans. Ventura also took sustainable development seriously, stopped giving developers the power to control regional planning and, most concrete, got a real alternative transportation policy going with the construction of a light rail around the Twin Cities.
His achievements as a political reformer were much more mixed. Instead of championing comprehensive campaign finance reform and instant-runoff voting–changes that might have made it possible for more of his Independence Party brethren to be elected to public office–he focused his energies on a quixotic quest for a unicameral legislature and never even got a floor vote on his proposal. One little-noticed success was his push for the creation of more competitive legislative districts in the redistricting process, but this is hardly the stuff to keep populist hearts pounding.
Ventura’s biggest success was in showing that a political leader could walk a middle path between the ideological extremes. He was strongly pro-choice and anti-death penalty, but also pro-gun owners. And while he bashed welfare and preached the Republican gospel of “personal responsibility,” he also increased spending on affordable housing, health insurance for poor children and programs that help families on welfare find jobs.
But that same independence of mind also helped spur his downfall. Ventura entered the governor’s office with no real allies in the legislature, and though he adeptly played both parties off each other for a while, ultimately he antagonized leaders on both sides to the point that they stopped playing ball with him. He could have regained the upper hand by electing a couple of his own Independence Party followers to the legislature, but Ventura preferred to spend his free time on his own enrichment, not building his party.
And that, finally, is what saddens me most about his meteoric rise and fall. Like Ross Perot before him, Jesse Ventura momentarily captured the public imagination with the prospect of a fundamental reshaping of the political order. But neither man wanted to the heavy lifting needed to achieve that goal–and in fairness to both of them, a new political party built solely around their star power (or billions) could not succeed.
Ventura’s four years in power do confirm a basic rule about politics that anyone interested in change must attend to: There are no shortcuts. The Democrats and Republicans are still turning off millions of Americans. Polls show that distrust of Washington is rising again after a post-September 11 rush of political solidarity. But that doesn’t mean the path forward has gotten any easier for people seeking to put together a serious third-party alternative.
Even people who don’t want third parties to thrive ought to take heed. Today, America faces life-and-death challenges that may require significant changes in direction. But in order to shift course, we need to be able to see an alternative path and hear someone telling us why it may be the better way to go. Third party leaders like Jesse Ventura often play that vital role. Today, we should not gloat over the disappearance of his independent voice–we should be on watch for the next one.