Political circus

While other parties talk about the Big Tent, the Reform Party constructs the Big Top.


Doug IrelandMicah L. Sifry
September 25, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

It is not only inevitable that Pat Buchanan will bolt the GOP to seek the Reform Party nomination, it is nearly as inevitable that he will win it. The only remaining potential obstacle is the uncertain candidacy of millionaire playboy Donald Trump.

The rumors of a Trump candidacy emerged as a last-ditch effort by Minnesota Reform Gov. Jesse Ventura to find somebody to stop the Buchanan juggernaut. Ventura's closest political adviser, Dean Barkley, said Thursday: "I've heard that Pat has started organizing in some states already. If he announces soon," Barkley worried, "our candidate can't wait till next June. Someone would have to announce within 30 days of Buchanan's announcement. Maybe even 30 days from now."

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Trump told USA Today on Friday that he'll make his decision sometime in January, after his new book, "The America We Deserve," is published. Is Trump's flirtation with Reform more than a way of hyping his book and his businesses? There's no question that Trump is, as a non-Washington counselor puts it, "seriously engaged" in exploring the presidential race. His political advisers tell us that they're currently negotiating with three Nevada-based signature-collection firms to see what it would cost to get Trump on the ballot in the 29 states where Reform has no ballot line.

Richard Winger, the country's leading expert on ballot access, says that the going rate is about $2 per signature for paid petition gatherers, and that it would take around 350,000 valid signatures to get Trump on those state ballots. Figure roughly a million dollars -- chump change to Trump, and a bargain for the all the publicity he'd reap from a presidential bid. One of the Donald's political consultants estimates that he'd have to spend $20 million to get the Reform nomination. That would mean a lavish, Rolls-Royce campaign designed to lure as many as possible of the 6.5 million casino customers in Trump's database into the Reform party. "We've been polling them periodically for years, and they just love him" says a Trump adviser. "We did a huge market survey six months ago. He's spent 25 years building this persona, and they like it."

There has been speculation that Trump has so much debt that his creditors wouldn't let him run. Not so, says the top executive of one of Trump's companies. "The debt is all held by Trump's publicly-traded company," he says. "It's about $1.8 billion, and it's all in the form of high-yield bonds held by thousands of people who only care if their dividend checks don't arrive. This year we had a gross income of over $300 million." Moreover, Trump's father Fred, who was worth over $1 billion himself, recently died and Trump's share of the estate -- which has to be whacked up among his three living siblings and the children of a deceased fourth -- is probably worth at least $200 million. That, added to Trump's already considerable personal liquidity, gives him more than enough to run without feeling any pinch.

Contrary to public perception, while Trump may be an electoral neophyte as a candidate he is not green to politics. As a young man, he joined the family real-estate business -- a highly politicized enterprise, especially in New York. Trump, in effect, became the company bagman, handing out contributions to politicians in return for favorable treatment for the family's holdings. He's been an equal-opportunity influence buyer, building his own empire in part by playing the pols like violins, ladling out the bucks to Democrats like Gov. Mario Cuomo and Mayor Ed Koch when they were in power, then switching with ease to Republicans George Pataki and Rudy Guiliani when they took office.

Like Reform presidential nominee Ross Perot before him, Trump's entrie into the political arena may be motivated by personal disdain for other candidates. Both Perot and Buchanan are said to have long-standing rifts with the Bush clan. Trump is described by an advisor as having "a warm feeling for and cordial relationship" with George and Barbara Bush. Trump even threw a party at his New York apartment for Jeb Bush's Florida gubernatorial campaign that netted $100,000. But the same source describes Trump as "not enamored" of either George W. or Al Gore. And Trump positively despises Bill Bradley. In a May Wall Street Journal op-ed piece attacking Dollar Bill, Trump wrote that Bradley's success in eliminating a tax shelter for real-estate investments known as the "passive loss" in the 1986 Tax Reform Act "sent the real estate markets through the windshield -- it was a hard time for developers like me."

But will all this be enough to make a candidate out of The Donald? An outside-the-Beltway Trump consultant and golf partner says of his friend's potential candidacy: "If you're a guy who enjoys the public eye and enjoys the notoriety, why not? Every kid dreams of being president, and Donald is still really a kid. But I'm surprised he's allowed it to go this far. He will never get into this race as just a spoiler. In golf, let's say you're on the green at the last hole and all you need to do is get down in two -- tap the first putt to put it in. Donald doesn't take that approach -- he always goes for the win."

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If that's so, then the odds against Trump's running are doubly negative. He'd have to first fight Buchanan, who already has a substantial head start organizationally, and then take on the major-party candidates. And does Trump really want to endure nine months of insults from a bare-knuckles brawler like Buchanan? Already the Buchananites are cranking up their one-liners. Says wealthy former Reagan customs commissioner William von Raab: "It's silly, isn't it? When I hear his name I think of Taki's crack, on hearing that he'd named his daughter Tiffany, that he'd probably name a son Rolex."

Though Friday's CNN poll shows Reforms favoring Buchanan 2-1 over Trump, the developer seems to be Jesse Ventura's best hope of stopping Buchanan's takeover of the Reform Party. Television's talking lobotomies keep mentioning Warren Beatty as a possible anti-Buchanan horse. But Bill Hillsman, the populist media consultant who crafted Ventura's winning gubernatorial ads, dismisses the notion. "My meeting with Warren was not at the request of Ventura," Hillsman says, and underscores that "at no time has Warren, to my knowledge, thought about running as the candidate of the Reform Party" -- a statement confirmed by members of Beatty's unofficial "kitchen cabinet" of political advisors.

Ventura's man Barkley says, "As we see the world today, the most likely candidates that Ventura would support are Lowell Weicker and Donald Trump." But in talking up Weicker, the Venturans are clutching at straws. Weicker's TV interviews since he returned from vacation have been passionless and schizophrenic about the Reform Party. Weicker's former Connecticut campaign manager and closest political adviser, Tom D'Amore, now says that "if Buchanan wants the Reform nomination, nothing can stop it."

Weicker is speaking next weekend to the minuscule American Reform Party, a tiny coterie of anti-Perot centrists who split from Reform over Perot's authoritarian antics, but which has no money at all and is not on the ballot in a single state. While conceding that Ayatollah Pat might get Weicker's fires burning in opposition, D'Amore wonders: "Is Weicker that interested in the Reform Party and building it? I don't know." He adds, "I sure as hell don't want to have anything to do with the Reform Party if Buchanan is in it."

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For the last week Buchanan has been privately telling people that the only thing holding up the announcement of his Reform candidacy is an advisory opinion from the Federal Election Commission about money. The Buchanan camp says they can have FEC matching funds -- for the money Pat has already raised as a Republican -- applied to his Reform bid.

The FEC says it has yet to receive a formal written request from Buchanan. It will come after his book tour ends. But based on conversations with agency staffers, the Buchananites appear confident of their legal position. There is always a possibility that Republican members of the highly-politicized commission could screw Buchanan, but a top Buchananite says even that wouldn't keep Pat from going Reform: "It would simply add to Pat's aura of martyrdom at the hands of the undemocratic Republican establishment, and give him another way to bash George Bush."

Buchanan has been taking a terrific beating on TV for his new book, "A Republic, Not an Empire," and the Bushies have been hoping that this pummeling might drive Buchanan out of the race altogether, or at least weaken his appeal to Reformers. While there is ample evidence of anti-Semitism in Buchanan's past writings, it is hard to find in this new text. Buchanan is right when he says that TV's chattering classes -- who paint Pat as a "Hitler-lover who opposed World War II" -- are somewhat distorting his book. But these darts are unlikely to deter support among most of his heavily Catholic foot soldiers, who will flood the Reform Party and drown its existing core of activists.

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The attacks only fuel Buchanan's legendary stubbornness and make it more certain that he'll run, not less -- if only to preserve his image for future column-and-TV employment. Buchanan himself sent out a rousing e-mail memo to the Brigades on Friday: "Reports are coming in here that giant chain book stores ... may be pulling the book from the shelves ... call your local book stores ... and demand to know if they're carrying it," wrote Buchanan, adding "We are taking incoming, but are holding up fine: Ride to the sound of the Guns!"[sic] The controversy has only boosted the book's sales.

Given how the working- and lumpen-middle classes who are Buchanan's target constituencies in this race distrust the media, it's less than evident that the little-screen poundings will have a significant effect on their receptivity to him. Indeed, a new ABC poll of 1,000 voters, taken as the book controversy was dominating the air waves, showed 15 percent of voters would "seriously consider" voting for Buchanan in a three-way race -- up four points from the ABC poll five weeks earlier -- including 17 percent of Republicans, 16 percent of Democrats and an impressive 24 percent of independents.

A number of pundits who haven't done their homework keep insisting that Ventura might still run to block the Buchanan takeover. That's nonsense. Ventura excoriated Republican gubernatorial candidate Norm Coleman in 1998 for seeking the post only a year after being elected mayor of St. Paul; running this time would make Ventura look like a hypocrite and tarnish his iconoclastic image. Any of Ventura's designs on the White House focus on 2004.

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Another media myth is that Ventura's forces "took over" the Reform Party when Jack Gargan, the candidate for party chair he backed, was elected at the July Reform convention in Dearborn. In fact, the party is basically an empty shell, composed of 50 state parties that are little more than letterheads with no base, apart from a handful of exceptions like Minnesota and New York. "That's true," incoming party chair Jack Gargan told us this week, adding that the party's rules mean "someone with either a lot of money or a big following could stuff the ballot process. We are not well-enough established. They could walk in and take us over, and [prior to January 1st] I can't do a darn thing about it."

Perot loyalists still control many of the state parties, and even the New York Times, in a front-page Friday story, has now confirmed what we reported in the Nation three weeks ago: Ross Perot and his Perotbots are supporting Buchanan. So is the close-knit network of activists paraded into the Reform Party by Lenora Fulani, ex-presidential candidate of the cultish racket formerly known as the New Alliance Party, and her puppeteer Fred Newman, the NAPers' manipulative guru. Add this support to the forthcoming inundation of the party by the Buchanan Brigades, and Buchanan's emergence as the nominee of the Reform Party seems unstoppable.


Doug Ireland

Doug Ireland is is a former columnist for the Village Voice and the New York Observer.

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Micah L. Sifry

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Donald Trump Jeb Bush Republican Party

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