Four years ago, during the preliminaries to the 1992 presidential campaign, Ross Perot played coy with American voters. He first said he wouldn’t run for president, then he changed his mind.
Perot used widespread cynicism about the political establishment (Republicans and Democrats and the federal government) to generally lambaste everybody else and most existing government programs. He scored with about 19 percent of the popular vote, but he didn’t carry a state and won no electoral votes.
Perot, some people who follow politics expected, would give it another bully try this year and perhaps come out better that in 1992. It appears that those seers didn’t see too clearly into America’s political atmosphere.
Perot, to be sure, moved ahead with plans to form a third major political party. His plans, however, don’t appear to have materialized as he hoped, The Reform Party, with no candidate and little leadership except Perot’s fickle presence, is on the ballot in 14 states. It didn’t make it to the ballot in Texas, Perot’s home state, where his supporters can vote for him only as an independent without party affiliation.
Perot, as in 1992, may stage a late charge, spending from his vast wealth, and propel himself to the Reform Party’s nomination. One poll shows that he could get about 13 percent of the vote in a three-way race against Sen. Robert Dole and President Clinton. That scenario may develop,but even so,it seems premature to say that the United States is ready or eager for a third major political party.
Republicans and Democrats, with exceptions most knowledgeable people can cite, provide remarkable political stability and an always emerging flow of new ideas and leaders to challenge the status quo. The challenges may not come fast enough or be daring enough from time to time. The electorate usually finds ways to meaningfully express itself, as in the Republican congressional triumphs of 1994.
It is stability, however, that is perhaps the great distinctive of the American idea. The independence and freedom born in the revolution have maintained themselves in the remarkable balance of a two-party system. Some democracies (like some in Western Europe) thrive and survive with multi-party systems, but the constant upheaval leaves scars.
The Washington Post reported this month that scholarly research conducted in 1994 found that Americans become less comfortable with criticism of government as the criticism becomes more specific. Richard Martin, the Post’s director of polling, wrote that the sharp specificity of Republicans’ criticism about programs like Medicare and environmental protection may actually have blunted the so-called congressional revolution of 1994. The same surely would apply if Democrats were the ones advocating more radical changes.
The research and Martin’s conclusions suggest that Americans like a two-party system that paces change, erring on the slower side. Those who would move beyond the accepted pace within both parties or as outsiders trying to build a new party may persevere. However, it may take much longer with much better-defined ideas before profound changes prevail from within the parties or from who choose another path.