Ross Perot's Reform Party Third choice: Challenge to Democrats, Republicans and the whole two-party system.

Campaign 1996

August 13, 1996

WILL ROSS PEROT's new Reform Party outlast the billionaire candidate whose money was its midwife? Will the party do well enough to qualify for federal election funds in 1998 and 2000? Is a genuine third party really on the scene, ready to shake-up political arithmetic or supplant one of the existing major parties?

Such questions resonate after the Reform Party's two-part convention captured some prime time from the Republicans this past weekend and will do so again when it confirms Mr. Perot's nomination next weekend. There are doubts whether the Texan can equal or surpass the 19 percent of the vote he got in 1992. But there also is an expection that he will do well enough so his creation may not suffer the fate of other vanished third parties.

The last time a major party disappeared was in the 1850s when the Whigs waffled on slavery and a Republican Party arose to win the 1860 election with Abraham Lincoln. No such cataclysmic issue appears on Mr. Perot's agenda. He seems content to exploit routine populist causes such as campaign finance reform, term limits, weekend voting, federal spending cuts, protectionism and a balanced budget -- all of which appeal to independent-minded voters but hardly revolutionize them.

Oddly enough, it is former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, the Perot challenger facing almost certain defeat, who stresses a nation-shaking issue that could lead to a new major party: The prospect of a generational war between baby boomers in retirement and a younger working-age cohort that rebels against the tax burden this requires. Mr. Lamm's remedy is a full-scale effort to restore solvency to Social Security and Medicare entitlements heading toward bankruptcy.

There are plenty of independent voters out in the land who are fed up with the major parties. A Gallup poll last September reported that 46 percent of those sampled favored formation of a third party, triple the percentage recorded in the 1930s.

If the Reform Party does nothing more than force Republicans and Democrats to face the harsh economic truths of soaring national debt, aging population, under-funded pensions and over-ambitious health care systems it will more than justify its existence.

Pub Date: 8/13/96

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