There won't be a three-party system," Ross Perot predicted, announcing his intention to form a new political party. "One of these parties is going to disappear. One of these special-interest parties is going to have a meltdown." Little Critter talkin' through his hat again? Maybe. Or maybe not. In the rush to handicap the horse-race implications of Perot's latest safari-it'll help Clinton, hurt Dole, blah, blah, blah--not much attention has been paid to the deeper significance of this new challenge: the Democratic Party is now, officially, under assault. And not just because the Perot party will "help" Republicans running for Congress in 1996, as some of Washington's wisdom-wreakers were insisting last week. (I mean, c'mon: who knows?) The Democratic Party is in trouble because the Independence Party is likely to become the vehicle for what Democrats have long pretended to represent: gutbucket, egalitarian, plutocrat-bashing American populism.
Let's review the obvious. The Republicans know who they are. They want, as Phil Gramm says, less government and more freedom. Except sometimes: when more government means more profits for their special interests. The Democrats, by contrast, are a mess. They have no organizing philosophy; they are a dwindling collection of fads and factions, most of which are anathema to the broad American middle. "We're obsolete," a Democratic congressman from the West told me last week. "We're trying to protect an ossified system. We have no new ideas and we made a serious mistake diving into the money game with both hands in the 1980s." It's a common lament. Last week the Democrats were out defending the indefensible: an entitlement system--specifically Medicare (but they're just as witless about social security)--that will cause their grandchildren to pay confiscatory tax rates if left unreformed. "We should have seized the opportunity," said Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey. "We should have done something bigger than the Republicans, a real Medicare reform."
Shoulda, woulda . . . the Democrats have been flailing about so long and so abjectly that questions about their viability almost seem banal. But still, you've got to wonder: Are they toast? Are they the Whigs? Actually, the post-McGovern Dems do bear a striking philosophical resemblance to the Whigs--the activist elitists of the 19th century. "The Whigs wanted to use the power of government to improve things," says Harry Watson of the University of North Carolina. The Whigs were also preachy and rectitudinous in ways that seem very familiar now. Hillary Clinton might have made a perfect Whig. "Oh, absolutely," says Scan Wilentz, the Princeton historian. "Banning smoking in the White House was a very Whiggy thing to do. There is a [topdown] moralistic fervor the Whigs and contemporary Democrats have in common . . . although the current Democrats practice a kind of post-ethical moralism." Don't smoke, don't drink--but everybody has a right to an abortion.
The combination of elitism, government activism and preachiness was not a huge hit in the 19th century. The Whigs were trounced by the forces of popular democracy, led by Andrew Jackson--America's second great reactionary populist (Jefferson was the first). Jacksonian Democrats hated government activism. They didn't want Washington taking their tax money to build canals. They favored deregulation and devolution, including the disastrous return of currency control to the states (which caused inflationary chaos). They didn't like Whig preachers telling them to teetotal; they had a more emotional, tent-show revivalist style of faith. Newt Gingrich would be a pretty plausible Jacksonian but for one thing: his stubborn belief in the righteousness of the successful (as misplaced as liberal faith in the righteousness of the poor).
Which is where Perot comes in. This is a moment pregnant with Jacksonian populist rage, but neither of the existing parties seems likely to raise that banner. The first flush of conventional wisdom had Perot's new party providing Colin Powell a comfortable, centrist path to the White House. Again: who knows? Perot isn't a very comfortable centrist. It's equally plausible--as Gerald Seib argued in The Wall Street Journal--that Perot's third party will induce Republicans to cleave to Powell in order to prevent him from going Independent (Bob Dole does look a laggard in a three-way race). If that happens, who does the Perot party nominate?
The Little Guy hopes they'll turn to . . . the Little Guy. And they might. But it's instructive to remember who sent the faithful into paroxysms of populist euphoria at Perot's recent "issues" conference in Dallas: Pat Buchanan. It's not likely that Buchanan--who remains, in his soul, more the Nixon staffer than the populist warrior--will leave his beloved GOP. He is, however, closest among current politicians to addressing the dark side of the radical middle, the reactionary populism that surges during times of economic upheaval. A blander shade of Buchananism seems the likely tint of the Independence Party. It is a tone and posture -- anti-elite, nativist, isolationist, protectionist--that may well attract the Democratic Party's traditional constituencies. It could overwhelm the party; more likely, the Democrats will transform themselves and envelop the extremists. If so, the result could be permanent minority status. (This sort of populism, Phil Gramm has aptly said, is the recessive gene of American politics.) But they will be a far more coherent--and less anguished--minority than the Democrats are now.