Life of the party?

Hollywood, Democrats and Reform Party leaders aren't saying much about a possible Beatty candidacy.

Topics: Democratic Party,

As Warren Beatty flirts with the notion of running for president, his potential candidacy has been compared to Ross Perot’s first presidential run in 1992. But a better comparison might be to Pat Robertson’s campaign in 1988, which galvanized religious conservatives and led to the formation of the Christian Coalition. Could a Beatty candidacy do the same for the dormant American left?

For now, Beatty is being coy about whether, if he runs, it will be as a Democrat, a Reform Party candidate or an independent, though he seems to revel in opportunities to take swipes at his once-beloved Democratic Party for “its failure to mold public opinion in resistance to big money.”

So far a Beatty bid has gotten little formal comment from political officialdom. Democrats don’t want to talk about it. “I don’t think I have anything to offer you on that,” said Erik Smith of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It’s just very new and I don’t think anyone’s thought through it yet.” The Bill Bradley campaign, which is positioning itself for a run from Vice President Al Gore’s left, was tightlipped. “We’ll leave [Beatty] to his own perspective,” said spokesman Eric Hauser. “Sen. Bradley just talks about and does the things that he believes.”

Even legendary left-wing talkers like Oakland, Calif., Mayor Jerry Brown and California state Sen. Tom Hayden have refused to comment. “I don’t want to get involved in all that,” said Bob Mulholland, the typically garrulous political director of the California Democratic Party.

Reform Party officials, likewise, have been fairly quiet, and less than fully enthusiastic about the possibility that Beatty might run for their party’s nomination. Although Beatty’s dinner with Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura’s adman, Bill Hillsman, has fueled speculation that the party wants the famed actor to run, workaday party activists and leaders are less interested.

“Warren hasn’t called me,” joked Donna Donovan, press secretary for the national Reform Party. Donovan said that after reading Beatty’s Aug. 22 op-ed in the New York Times, she was uncertain whether Beatty would be a good fit for the party. “I don’t know where he stands on a lot of issues to the Reform Party — a balanced budget amendment, term limits, trade agreements, jobs, finance reform. Where is he on NAFTA or GATT? Is he a free trader or fair trader? He’s still got a lot of cards to play.”

“Beatty, I believe, is more interested in bringing the Democrat Party back to its original roots,” said Gerry Moan, the incoming vice chairman of the national Reform Party. “Would he try to disrupt the vote totals to take votes away from the Democratic nominee? I don’t think that’s his goal. I think his mission is strictly ideological.”

Even Hollywood political luminaries have been fairly standoffish about a Beatty candidacy. “Vice President Gore has the majority of support in this community,” said Chad Griffin, who serves as an advisor to Rob Reiner on political issues. Reiner came to the forefront of the Hollywood-political fusion last fall when he sponsored a successful California ballot initiative to levy an additional 50 cents-per-pack tax on cigarettes to fund children’s programs. “Gore cares about issues that [Californians] in particular care about — the environment and education.”

Some of that may be spin from Reiner’s camp, which received help on the stump from the Clinton/Gore team last fall. As proof that some within the Hollywood community are looking for other options, last June former Warner Bros. executive Terry Semel hosted a meeting at his Bel-Air home for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, which Beatty attended.

But even Beatty confidante and supporter Norman Lear said, “I don’t see [the Hollywood reaction to a Beatty candidacy] being as big as the national press reaction. He’s heard from every television talk show — Larry King, Cokie Roberts — anyone you can think of. I don’t think he’s been invited to as many dinner parties as talk shows.”

Because Beatty is Beatty, he doesn’t necessarily need Hollywood money or the Reform Party’s nomination — though the prospect of a matchup between Beatty and Pat Buchanan, who is also mulling a Reform Party bid, is irresistible. Still, Lear and others think Beatty’s primary role will be to make Democrats responsive to issues — and voters — they’ve abandoned on the left.

That’s why the comparison with Robertson is illuminating. It was Robertson’s surprise second-place finish in the 1988 Iowa caucus that led to the foundation of the Christian Coalition, and served as a clarion call for religious conservatives to mobilize locally. Over the last 11 years, religious conservatives have proven effective at getting elected to local city councils and school boards, the fruits of which are being seen in places like Kansas and Arkansas.

Today, there is a large crowd of presidential candidates, from Gary Bauer to Steve Forbes to Pat Buchanan, playing to the right-wing vote. Could Beatty do the same for dormant leftists?

“People are ready,” insisted Jim Hightower, nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and former Texas commissioner of agriculture. “Almost everywhere, there’s a group of people who are fighting the corporate bastards and winning. We just have to tap into that local energy and connect it up with a larger, national strategy.”

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Hightower and others point to the large swath of the American electorate that doesn’t bother to vote, whom Beatty might persuade to get involved. But while the left likes to claim the allegiance of the turned-off electorate, so does the right, and making assumptions about this large group is dangerous.

Clearly, there’s a sizable constituency for a third-party candidate, as recent national elections have shown, but no left-leaning candidate has tapped into the discontent. Four of the last eight presidential elections have featured significant third-party challengers. In 1968, Alabama Gov. George Wallace ran against Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and the civil rights movement, and earned more than 13 percent of the national presidential vote. In 1980, John Anderson came out of nowhere and got 7 percent of the tally against Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.

The most impressive third-party showing of late was Ross Perot’s in 1992, when he received 19 percent of the vote. Even after Perot got carried away doing the presidential hokey pokey in 1996 and became widely perceived as a crackpot, he still clocked 9 percent of the vote.

That same year, former Democratic presidential candidates Gary Hart and the late Paul Tsongas joined Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker, Sen. Bill Bradley and others in a conference call about starting a third political party. Those discussions went nowhere, and Bradley went back to the party he chastised in his resignation from the U.S. Senate.

Weicker has since been named as a possible Reform Party candidate, but many party faithful don’t believe he has the fire in the belly for a presidential run. And indeed, when Weicker called Salon News from his vacation in Italy, politics seemed to be the furthest thing from his mind. “I’ve just spent two weeks enjoying the fine Italian art, food, wine and my family,” he said. “I haven’t given the presidential race any thought at all.” He declined to comment on Beatty’s possible candidacy.

But with all that third-party activity, there’s been little movement on the left, which is why some high-profile liberals are hoping for a Beatty run. Like Wallace, Perot and Robertson before him, Beatty could change the focus of the 2000 election, and even have a lasting impact on the politics of the two major parties.

Wallace, of course, split the Democratic Party along racial lines and helped Republicans craft the so-called Southern strategy that gave the party the White House for 20 of the next 24 years. Robertson’s run gave birth to the Christian Coalition, while the Perot candidacy made deficit reduction a political issue that transcends party lines, breaking down the traditional paradigms of tax-and-spend Democrats and trickle-down Republicans. It helped give birth to the Clinton-Greenspan-Rubinomics that have dominated American politics throughout the 1990s.

What might a Beatty campaign stand for? So far, it is hard to distinguish Beatty from Bulworth, the sold-out-senator-turned-populist he played in the 1998 movie. Judging from his New York Times op-ed piece, campaign finance and health-care reform would be the pillars of Beatty’s platform, as they were a central tenet of Bulworth’s rhyming stump speeches.

Campaign finance reform seems to resonate with voters. Several statewide reform initiatives have passed, and four states have public election financing today. Major health-care reform would likely be a tougher sell. While polls show Americans fed up with health maintenance organizations and worried about the one-quarter of Americans who lack health insurance, concrete reform proposals have faced rougher going.

A California ballot measure for a single-payer system was crushed in 1992, which was an ominous sign for what is commonly believed to be the biggest gaffe of Clinton’s first term, his health-care reform effort. But sources close to consumer advocate Ralph Nader, a champion of health-care reform, say Beatty has already put calls in to Nader seeking advice and information on health-care policy.

So far Beatty has been silent about some of Bulworth’s more innovative campaign ideas, like his answer to racial division: “a voluntary program … of procreative racial deconstruction. Fucking everybody until we’re all the same color.” But the campaign season is still young.

Those who support a Beatty run believe he’d garner support for issues that the left has been screaming about into the void for years. “The discourse now is between Republican kookism and Democratic corporatism and the vast majority of people feel left out of that,” Hightower said. “This is shaping up to be another money-soaked snoozer of a presidential campaign that will avoid the kitchen table issues.”

Still, Hightower is not convinced that Beatty is the silver bullet for the tired American left. “The truth is, we are experiencing a failure of the progressive strategic leadership on the national level. Our failure to do that means that we’re left hoping for someone like Warren Beatty to get in and raise some issues,” Hightower added. “It is pathetically revealing about the limited scope of the current debate in American politics.”

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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