Run, Lowell, Run

The Connecticut Yankee could stop Pat Buchanan from hijacking the Reform Party -- and give that Texas preppy in cowboy boots a run for his money in November.

Published September 14, 1999 1:00PM (EDT)

Call it shrewd politics or call it desperation. Either way, Pat Buchanan, his third GOP presidential try tanking before the campaign has really begun, is suddenly threatening to take his lock-and-load Republicanism away from the Republicans. On "Meet the Press," Buchanan declared Sunday that he is "strongly" leaning toward seeking the Reform Party's presidential nomination.

For Buchanan, this prospective defection is a win-win proposition: Either he scares some respect from a GOP establishment that disdains him as a two-time loser, or he can enjoy burning the $12 million in federal election funds to which this year's Reform nominee will be entitled. But the Buchanan embrace will not necessarily do any favors for a Reform Party trying desperately to expand its electoral base.

True, Buchanan's anti-immigration oratory and economic protectionism resonate with Ross Perot's original constituency -- one reason Perot's deputy Pat Choate is reportedly supporting a Buchanan nomination. But Buchanan's hard-line anti-abortion rhetoric, the fundamentalist Christian politics of his supporters, and the overall nastiness of his campaign helped convince legions of moderate voters to support Bill Clinton in 1992. The same angry moralism of which Buchanan is the preeminent national spokesman -- the current incarnation of what historian Richard Hofstadter once called "the paranoid style in American politics" -- led the Republican impeachment faction to humiliating defeat in the Senate just months ago.

It's a measure of the present disarray of the Reform Party -- Perot's surrogates contending for primacy with the socially moderate, civil libertarian constituency of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura -- that the leading alternative to Buchanan is his ideological nemesis for nearly three decades: former Connecticut Sen. and Gov. Lowell Weicker. Weicker and Buchanan first collided during the 1973 Watergate hearings, when Weicker denounced Richard Nixon's abuses while Buchanan wrote Nixon's speeches; then later during the Reagan years, when Weicker battled his own party over abortion, civil rights and school prayer. Once contending for the soul of the Republican Party, Weicker and Buchanan may now take their profound battle over the purpose of American politics and government to the Reform arena.

I have been pondering the dynamics of a possible Weicker candidacy ever since Ventura wrested control of the Reform Party from founder Ross Perot this summer, and floated word that he wouldn't mind seeing Weicker, one of his mentors and advisors, as the party's presidential candidate. With Buchanan's near-announcement, the question gains some urgency -- both for the Reform Party and the electorate as a whole. Will Lowell Weicker run -- and what sort of a candidate might he be?

Weicker himself declines to be quoted, just yet, on Buchanan, and has given himself through mid-autumn to make up his own mind about running. Regardless of his own decision, as a student of third-party politics he sees the Buchanan question as a defining moment for the Reform Party: "How they handle this will really show whether the Reform Party is serious about expanding its base. They can't afford to stumble by nominating someone with a narrow agenda. The Republicans and Democrats have enough money and people that they have room for error. Not the Reform Party; this party can't afford to make a mistake."

At the same time, Weicker talks about the eerie continuity of replayed political battles, not only within the Reform Party but this year's campaign as a whole. George W. Bush's recent call to channel social-program funding through churches, for instance, infuriates Weicker, and inspires a moment's reflection about "this historic battle between me and conservatives" on church-state relations. One gets the distinct feeling that if Weicker were leaning against running, the prospect of Buchanan turning the Reform Party into a vehicle for the politics of religion would be almost enough to change his mind.

Why might the Reform Party reject a media celebrity like Buchanan, no matter how polarizing, in favor of a retired politician from a small state who lacks an established national constituency? The answer lies in Weicker's track record: not that famous moment in 1973 when he denounced his own party's president, but his 1990 independent run for governor of Connecticut. Weicker, effectively evicted by conservatives from Republican ranks, ran against massively funded, poll-driven Democratic and Republican rivals with a campaign based on relentless head-knocking on the most difficult issues facing a then-bankrupt state -- taxation, racial segregation, health care. Defying all conventional wisdom, Weicker won -- and though he never controlled the state Legislature, managed to deliver both a balanced budget and Connecticut's most progressive and visionary administration in decades.

In certain ways the dynamics of that 1990 Connecticut campaign bore eerie similarities to the likely Gore-Bush scenario. Connecticut voters that year were asked to choose between a youngish Republican who promised ill-defined conservative compassion yet who remained loyal to his base in the antiabortion, social-Darwinist, market-worshipping right and a Democrat distinguished for his grasp of policy issues but who was hopelessly wooden on the stump, and too beholden to the party's funders and power-brokers to run a vital campaign. Faced with this dreary, fatalistic choice, voters found Weicker's bull-in-a-china-shop frankness welcome relief.

But the reasons Reformistas ought to be knocking down Weicker's door go well beyond this superficial similarity. The fact is that few individuals in American political life can claim Weicker's experience and success at the specific strategies for successful independent politics and governance. Consider one particularly telling episode in Weicker's career, back when he was still a Republican.

In 1982 in Connecticut, where I was a young reporter, restive conservatives decided it was high time to kick out Sen. Lowell Weicker as the state GOP's senior office-holder and standard-bearer. Their primary champion was Prescott Bush Jr., the ineffectual brother of a dishrag vice president, uncle of today's George W. (Weicker, born to even more money than the Bushes, worked hard at public service from his youthful election as a Greenwich selectman in the early '60s, through his retirement from the Connecticut governor's office in 1995. I suspect this lends a special edge to his rivalry with the far less disciplined Bush clan, who hail from the town of Fairfield, just up I-95 from Weicker's Greenwich.)

Prescott Bush Jr. had about as much populist appeal as the commodore of a blue-blood yacht club, and Weicker swabbed the deck with him. But instead of gripping the Republican reigns tighter and trying to purge his right wing opponents, Weicker blew them out of the water by -- democratization. He persuaded the state GOP to change its rules to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in Republican primaries. Weicker was willing to trust broader public engagement over back-room machination to dilute the strength of his enemies. And as it turned out, giving legions of unaffiliated voters their first primary voice was only the prelude to Weicker's later and more famous experiment in shaking up politics as usual in that 1990 gubernatorial race, after he had left the GOP (or, as he likes to say, after the GOP left him).

Such a broadly inclusive strategy as Weicker's is utterly foreign to today's candidates and power-brokers. Instead of seeking voter participation, the people who control both parties -- big-money donors, political dynastics like Bush and Gore and narrow ideological interest groups on both sides of the spectrum -- all count on low-turnout elections whose outcome is easy to control.

What's more, unlike most third-party candidates -- not to mention a certain prep-school Texan who'd never held a steady job until his 40s, or a vice president who inherited his Tennessee Senate seat from his father -- Weicker actually knows how to govern. With 18 years in the Senate passing legislation despite being an outcast in his own party, and a singularly substantive term in the governor's mansion after leaving the GOP, Weicker claims not just prophet-with-honor dissents but tangible achievements: legislation, functioning government agencies and a state budget both progressive and balanced.

Weicker would also bring to the presidential campaign something no third-party candidate has possessed since former Vice President Henry Wallace's futile 1948 attempt to wrest the New Deal legacy from Harry Truman: substantive existing constituencies. Start with organized labor. Several key unions broke with the traditionally Democratic AFL-CIO to sustain Weicker's independent gubernatorial bid. Few senators matched his pro-labor voting record, fewer still his commitment to equitable health care. Labor has no reason to love Al Gore, part of a Clinton administration which betrayed unions on NAFTA, health care and other issues. With some elements in the labor movement growing sick of a take-it-for-granted Democratic alliance that delivers less and less, a Weicker run might well inspire some high-profile defections among individual unions and state labor councils.

He'd also be the only candidate deserving a cheer or a vote from civil libertarians, both right and left, for whom the Clinton administration's embrace of the Communications Decency Act, of expanded FBI wiretap power and other Big Brother legislation has left a profound sense of unease. There are other constituencies, too, like the disabled -- Weicker, the parent of a Down's syndrome child, introduced the Americans with Disabilities Act. He was an early, forthright advocate of AIDS research, and as governor came to believe that reforming health care for the elderly can draw middle-class families into a new alliance with the poor.

Will Weicker run? He has reasons to resist. The disarray of the Reform Party is undoubtedly discouraging, as is the influence of the socially conservative Perot faction backing Buchanan. He is a longtime admirer of Bill Bradley, and he might decide the issues he cares about are sufficiently championed by his friend.

On the other hand, he may find it difficult to abandon the country's leading third party to the religious right and other Buchanan constituencies. Then, too, a Reform Party with Weicker as standard-bearer would signal to voters a movement that had outgrown the paranoid and xenophobic ego of its founder. It could give it, perhaps, the best chance at establishing an enduring presence of any national third party since the Civil War. And finally, he has to be deeply attracted by the prospect of once again debating a Bush, exposing the indulged preppy beneath Dubya's 10-gallon hat.

No media creation, Weicker in his 60s remains an authentic go-for-broke political actor whose conscience has always been his principal currency. As Connecticut's governor, he once waded bodily into a crowd of thousands of angry, jeering anti-tax protestors (a state income tax was the single most incendiary issue of his tenure), debating the crowd one Weicker-hater at a time, confounding his state police handlers left on the sidelines.

When he was governor, on his office desk in Hartford sat a leather-bound copy of Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." Weicker said he liked it because it was written in Twain's house a few blocks away, and because of Twain's satire on entanglement of religion and statecraft. But I suspect there was another appeal to the story as well. "Connecticut Yankee" tells the story of a shrewd Hartford gun-shop manager named Hank, who, thrown back in time to Camelot, uses his knowledge of technology to install himself as "the boss." Weicker, for all of his blustery conscience, is possessed of some of Hank's pleasure in good engineering: In Weicker's case -- and the Reform Party's, if a partnership can be forged -- it is not engineering of armor or armaments, but a singular, inventive skill at recasting the machinery of electoral democracy.

Conventional wisdom holds that the Reform Party, even with founder Ross Perot effectively purged, is doomed to be marginal -- especially given the astronomical campaign contribution shakedowns by Bush and Gore. But the seemingly unlikely partnership of Weicker and Ventura -- Weicker, the Yale-educated career politico and Ventura, the Navy SEAL turned wrestler turned governor -- should not be underestimated. Though flying beneath the media's radar since leaving the Connecticut governor's mansion in 1995, Lowell Weicker has the capacity to transform the Reform Party -- and possibly national politics itself -- as thoroughly as he once reshaped the terrain of Connecticut.

By Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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