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Somewhere in Texas a two-time presidential aspirant is laughing, no doubt feeling more than a little vindicated. When he first announced his Oval Office intentions, the pundits were dismissive of this rough-edged Texan.Those self-made business-mogul credentials he kept touting? Bah! Merely the results of cronyism and shameless influence-peddling. And those pearls of homespun wisdom, that aw-shucks bonhomie he dispensed on the campaign trail? Proof the man was an uneducated rube. As November loomed, much of the media criticism turned downright apoplectic: Didn't the American people realize they were about to elect a dangerous figure, a demagogue in James Stewart's clothing? Just look at him -- those squinty eyes, that disturbing laugh.
It's been more than a decade since Perot first sent shockwaves through the American political system, insisting that the two ossifying parties weren't merely incapable of solving the country's ills, they were part of the problem, hopelessly beholden to their respective interest groups.
What was needed, Perot argued, was a third way, a third party. In November 1992 nearly twenty percent of the electorate agreed; 19.7 million voters marked their ballots for Perot. Though many historians like to conveniently posit Bill Clinton's victory over George Herbert Walker Bush as signaling a decisive cultural shift, it's worth remembering that Clinton's mandate was a mere 43 percent of the vote. As U.S. News & World Reportsenior writer Michael Barone noted in his Almanac of American Politics: "If Perot had been run down by a bus in 1991, Bush might have beaten Clinton by a narrow margin."
Perot's 1996 Reform Party candidacy was less successful, drawing only nine percent of the total (eight million votes), though still enough to suck away crucial support from Republican challenger Bob Dole, notably pushing Florida and its key electoral votes into Clinton's column. Change the names around and you approximate 2000's endgame, when Ralph Nader's 97,488 Florida votes, mostly at the expense of Al Gore, cemented Bush's victory by 537 votes.
Four years on from that contest, the gridlocked scenario that Perot laid out seems even more stark. On one side stand huge numbers of voters convinced George W. Bush is simply Adolf Hitler in cowboy boots, with John Ashcroft presenting more of a pressing threat than Osama bin Laden. Across the ideological divide, equally large numbers are positive that John Kerry intends to turn America's defenses over to France while Hillary Clinton -- the true puppet master -- quietly plots to ban the Bible and to socialize medicine.
Perot himself has been silent this season, which may be for the best. The populist insurgency he represented was often overshadowed by his more bizarre pronouncements -- Colombian drug lords were targeting him, Miami-based Cuban-exile gunmen were on his trail, or Kulchur's favorite, when he sat before Sen. John Kerry in August 1992 and gave gripping congressional testimony on how the Viet Cong were so incensed over his Vietnam War POW work, they'd sent an assassination squad of five Black Panthersto Dallas, where Perot spied them "coming across my front yard with rifles."
Not to worry, though. "Fortunately, we had a security dog," Perot assured a stone-faced Kerry. "He worked them like a sheep dog. He worked all five and bought a big piece out of the seat of one of the guys as he went over the fence."
As Perot promised in 1992, you can call him crazy (Kerry likely has a few choice phrases of his own to describe that surreal day on Capitol Hill), but you can't dismiss the social forces he represented. Once again third-party votes loom large over the presidential election. With Kerry and Bush in a polling dead heat, those slivers of disaffected voters in battleground states such as Florida hold the balance for victory. Indeed leaders of both the Republican and the Democratic parties have already begun dispatching experienced legal teams and raising money for what appears to be the now-inevitable 2004 Florida recount.Accordingly, like Perot before him, Ralph Nader may be belittled by the press and mainstream party operatives. But he and his supporters cannot be ignored.
"I'm running to push the agenda the way third parties did in the Nineteenth Century," Nader explained to Kulchur, speaking in his uniquely earnest growl, akin to a hung-over Mister Rogers."Third parties never won a national election, but they pioneered the drive against slavery, for a woman's right to choose, for trade-union rights. This is about the next generation."
To that end, Kulchur spoke with the five other third-party presidential hopefuls Florida's voters will find on their ballots November 2. As each seeks to woo our state's undecided, they'll be accused of being spoilers, of being political nafs, or perhaps of being just plain nuts. But like Perot and Nader before them, one may end up having the last laugh.
2000 national total: 98,020
"Honor God, defend the family, restore the republic."
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