For pure entertainment value, the Reform Party simply has no competition in American politics today. Its peculiar presidential nominating process is shaping up as a tag-team death match pitting the Tiny Texan -- party founder Ross Perot -- and his man, Pat "the Bigot" Buchanan against Gov. Jesse "the Body" Ventura, and Donald "The Donald" Trump, Manhattan's aging playboy and real-estate kingpin.
It promises to be great entertainment. But make sure you discard any illusions about third-party politics before taking your seat at ringside.
Such illusions are commonplace across the ideological spectrum, among people who regard a third party as the panacea for whatever troubles them most about the existing electoral system. Are the Democrats insufficiently progressive? Are the Republicans not right-wing enough? Are both parties too compromised by special interests and big money? Let's dump the corrupt bastards and start a new party!
Aside from the technical difficulties of any such project in a nation as fragmented and diverse as the United States, the plain fact is that third parties are invariably just as imperfect as the Democrats and Republicans they aim to supplant -- and sometimes even worse. That's one reason why they normally tend to disappear after a few years, once their initial protest purpose has been served.
Surviving minor parties often wind up as appendages of the other two, used by individual politicians and powerbrokers to conduct their own feuds, vendettas and schemes.
Cynics would even say that the origin of the current Reform Party was as a vehicle for Ross Perot's bitter feud with George Bush the elder. But no matter how sincere Perot may be in his protectionist sentiments (and his distaste for big-spending special interests other than himself), the party he founded is rapidly devolving into a satire of its own original purposes.
The citizens who chose Perot in 1992 were consciously distancing themselves from the Republicans, in the wake of a GOP convention that featured Pat Buchanan's infamous cry for a "culture war" waged by the religious right. Two elections later, many of those voters must be gaping in disbelief as Perot and his minions now maneuver to deliver the party's nomination to that same discredited blowhard. Their understandable outrage has been openly expressed by the culturally tolerant Ventura.
Yet the Minnesota governor's preferred candidate isn't exactly an inspiration for Reform Party ideals, either. Donald Trump deserves credit for attacking as "repugnant" Buchanan's amazing remarks about Hitler. Still a registered Republican, Trump is to date the only prominent member of his party willing to denounce Buchanan's "extreme and outrageous views."
Unfortunately, as Ventura will eventually learn, the New York real-estate magnate is also a living monument to the worst aspects of the political system that the Reform Party is pledged to overturn. Before the Body commits himself too eagerly to the Donald, he should read Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett's book "Trump: The Deals and the Downfall," a brilliantly skeptical antidote to the builder's own spin machine.
As Barrett explains, the egocentric developer is not exactly a political virgin. His empire was founded on massive contributions to politicians of both parties in his home state, where he was probably the largest single political donor during the '80s. In return, he collected enormous tax breaks that made his early construction projects such as the Grand Hyatt and Trump Tower profitable.
He was a lavish donor to Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo and Democratic Mayor Ed Koch when those men could serve his purposes, and easily switched his checkbook allegiance to Republicans Rudy Giuliani and George Pataki as soon as they came to power.
Trump dabbles in third-party politics when it suits his agenda. He is a major donor these days to the Liberal Party, a vestigial ballot line in New York that is, as local quipsters say, neither liberal nor a party. It is, however, a favorite cause of Mayor Giuliani, who has long enjoyed the political support of the fringe organization's boss, an influential lawyer-lobbyist named Ray Harding. And Mr. Harding's firm has also been employed by the Trump organization to handle its corporate relations with City Hall.
That is the merest outline of the true Trump story, much of it not nearly as uplifting as the Donald's incessant self-flattery would suggest. So when incoming Reform Party chairman Jack Gargan says that his party stands firm for "the elimination of the influence of lobbyists and special interests," it's hard to imagine Trump as the party's standard-bearer. Perhaps he will explain his views on campaign finance and special-interest lobbying in his forthcoming book -- promotion of which is regarded by some cynics as the real reason behind Trump's current presidential posturing.
Meanwhile, whatever the outcome of the Reform bloodbath, it may provide redeeming educational value as well as welcome comic relief. We may finally learn that third parties perennially promise things they cannot deliver. There are no shortcuts in American politics, no detours around coalition and compromise. And the seemingly attractive "alternative" can turn out to be no more pure or principled than the tired old institutions it purports to displace.