Close Encounters of the Third-Party Kind
A bold experiment in American politics: a coalition between the wacky and the wacko.

The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, August 13, 1996

LONG BEACH, Calif.--Life on Mars? Having attended Sunday's convention for Ross Perot's Reform Party, I'm prepared to believe there's life on Neptune.

"I'm hoping that Perot will name me his vice president," Louie Youngkeit tells me outside the Long Beach Convention Center. Anything's possible, but Mr. Youngkeit's only qualification seems to be his obsession with Howard Hughes. He hands me a monograph he and his mother wrote in 1978, which claims that in 1949 Mr. Youngkeit's father looked after Hughes's car for a few days and allowed Hughes to drill an oil well on his property. In repayment for these kindnesses, the monograph says, Hughes promised to leave half his estate to the younger Mr. Youngkeit. When Hughes died in 1976, Mr. Youngkeit, to his dismay, was not named in the will. The monograph draws the obvious conclusion: Someone altered the will after Hughes's death. "This is the reason JFK was assassinated," Mr. Youngkeit adds, inexplicably.

I ask him how he'd vote if Mr. Perot weren't running. For Bob Dole, he replies. He opposes President Clinton because "Hillary was involved with Watergate, and that has to do with Howard Hughes. All the break-ins--they were looking for Howard Hughes's will."

Moving along, I come upon a bearded man of about 35 passing out pamphlets that call for replacing the income tax with a national sales tax. This doesn't seem so kooky. But wait. He tells me that each year a trillion dollars collected by the IRS goes unaccounted for--simply disappears. A trillion dollars? Well, he admits, not a trillion. More like $1.4 trillion.

"Where do you think it goes?" I ask.

"Probably to some kind of committee of 300 in Europe--the powers that be or something like that. . . . They use it for their own agenda."

A white man who says his name is Sanford X is carrying a sign that says: "Dole: Racist. Clinton: Racist. Perot: For the People."

"Why do you think Dole and Clinton are racists?" I ask.

"I don't know how to explain it," he says, "except that it's very subjective. . . . Maybe it's an issue of blood--bad blood [he points to Mr. Clinton's and Mr. Dole's names] and good blood [he points to Mr. Perot's name]."

Not everyone at the convention seems to be from another planet; there are alienated earthlings here, too. This being Southern California, many are upset about immigration. "There's a sign off the 5 freeway about taking your fruit out because it's a fruit-fly area," says Michelle, 31, a working-class resident of Irvine, Calif. "It's only in Spanish. That really fries me." Michelle believes immigrants have deprived her of her American birthright--victim status. "Do you realize a white woman isn't even considered a minority anymore? I have no rights."

It occurs to me that the prevailing anti-immigrant sentiment might not sit well with Lenora Fulani, the Reform Party activist and 1992 presidential candidate of the fringe left. I'm right--she tells me she's troubled by scapegoating of immigrants. But she's quick to note that "that's not a position of the Reform Party."

Indeed, the secret of the Reform Party--the reason it is a tent big enough to contain both Michelle and Ms. Fulani, not to mention Mr. Youngkeit and Mr. X--is that it stands for virtually nothing. It favors things that no one could be against (a fairer tax system, good jobs) and opposes things no one could be for (political corruption, excessive government debt). While the Democrats and Republicans at least sometimes engage in real debate about the purpose of government, the Reform Party treats the question as irrelevant. Mr. Perot merely sneers at the Establishment and promises to run government "like a business"--an approach that, at best, would produce a better-managed version of the status quo.

A party without ideology is open to all ideologies. (Well, almost. Lyndon LaRouche supporters showed up in Long Beach to oppose the Reform Party--perhaps because it's one of the few places where they seem respectable by contrast.) And since the Reform Party bases its appeal entirely on disaffection, it's little wonder that it draws so many of the politically homeless, those whose views are so extreme--or plain crazy--that they don't fit in anywhere else. Such a motley crew cannot make a coherent political movement, let alone a governing coalition.

As for the Reform Party's official stance, Sanford X nicely sums it up: "I support everything that benefits everybody, and I support nothing that doesn't benefit everybody." You'd have to be a kook to disagree.

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