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.
On election day, however, millions of voters decided they knew best, and duly cast their votes for that odd little Texan, oversize ears and all. No, not George W. Bush. Ross Perot.
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 Report senior 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 Panthers to 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.
Michael Peroutka, Constitution Party presidential candidate
2000 Constitution Party votes in Florida: 1371
2000 national total: 98,020
"Honor God, defend the family, restore the republic."
Your reaction to watching the first Bush/Kerry debate?
It's really two shades of the same color.
What's the number-one issue that neither candidate discussed?
We need to address illegal immigration. Our country is being invaded. We have 140,000 troops in an undeclared war in Iraq, and we're not protecting our own southern borders.
So you'd redeploy those soldiers along the Rio Grande?
Yes, and I believe the president has the authority and the duty to do exactly that. Also I would've talked about abortion, the premier moral issue of the day, which will not be discussed by those two gentlemen.
Are you pro-life?
Absolutely 100 percent pro-life. From the standpoint of principle, there is no difference between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry on abortion. They both agree that abortion is okay in some circumstances. But when you say there are exceptions to being pro-life, you're really advocating a pro-death position.
So as president, you'd outlaw abortion?
I'd do everything in my constitutional power to end abortion immediately.
Even in cases of rape or incest?
We do not punish the child for the sins of others.
Should I even ask about gay marriage?
Marriage has already been defined by God as the union between a man and a woman. I'm actually against the Defense of Marriage amendment because I don't think it's within the purview of the federal government to define or redefine marriage. But that doesn't mean I'm in favor of sodomy.
How about using federal funds for stem-cell research?
No, sir.... It's part of the unholy triangle. Sex education in schools creates the pregnancy problem, abortion kills the baby, and then stem-cell research harvests the embryo.
Many in the medical community believe sex education in the school system is crucial in fighting sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.
That's a canard. That's a smokescreen so this unholy triangle can exist.
David Cobb, Green Party presidential candidate
2000 Green Party Florida votes: 97,488
2000 national total: 2,882,955
"Ecological wisdom, grassroots democracy, social justice, peace and nonviolence."
Your thoughts on the presidential debates so far?
George W. Bush is a genuine threat to the planet, no doubt about it.
So you're telling all of Florida's Greens they'd better vote for Kerry?
I'm not going to vote for John Kerry -- someone who's talking about waging the war in Iraq more fiercely, sending more troops to Fallujah! And that's just foreign policy issues. Let's talk about NAFTA, or Kerry's opposition to universal health care.
Wait a minute, David. I followed the debate within the Green Party over running Nader again this year. You were the candidate all the anti-Nader folks rallied around, the folks who thought backing Nader was political suicide. You said you'd avoid campaigning in battleground states.
Ralph Nader did not seek our party's nomination. He was not willing to work with and build the Green Party.
C'mon David, we both know Nader wanted the nomination.
[Laughs] I was saying that I wanted to run a strategically smart campaign that would advance the goals of the Green Party, register more people. I want to help get more local Greens elected.
So your message is: If you're in New York, vote for me. If you're in Florida, vote for Kerry?
If somebody says to me: I voted for the Green Party for president before, but I just can't do it this time, it's too important -- my message is: I respect your decision. If you cannot vote for me because of where you lay your head, then I urge you to vote for the Green Party downballot, and to register as a Green Party member. You see, I'm trying to reach people where they are. I'm genuinely respecting people who feel utterly trapped by a voting system where they feel they have to vote against what they hate, rather than for what they want.
Do folks here in Miami scream at you a lot?
[Sighs] Yeah, I get some of that.
Michael Badnarik, Libertarian Party presidential candidate
2000 Libertarian Party Florida votes: 16,415
2000 national total: 384,431
"Individual liberty and personal responsibility, with a free-market economy of abundance and prosperity."
What did you think of the first presidential debate?
I don't know that they said anything relevant. I did note that in his closing statement, George Bush insisted he would maintain an all-volunteer army. Which contradicts what I believe -- that the Democrats and the Republicans intend to restore the draft.
Are you at least a fan of Bush's tax cuts?
We want to go far beyond the Bush tax cuts by repealing the IRS, dramatically reducing the size of the federal government, and pushing billions of dollars into the hands of ordinary Americans who will then spend that money, causing small businesses to spring up like dandelions.
Where does the embargo on Cuba fit into this?
We should lift the embargo. We should follow the advice of George Washington, who recommended we have economic ties with all countries and entangling alliances with none.
P.J. O'Rourke once joked that Libertarians are basically Republicans who like to smoke dope.
[Not amused] Libertarians want to drastically reduce the size of government. Republicans may say that, but they don't do it. George Bush is supposed to be from the small-government Republican Party and he increased the size of the federal government by 7.5 percent every year he was in office, which far outstrips the 2.5 percent increases Bill Clinton gave us.
So you'd see your party as being even farther to the Right?
We're neither Right nor Left. Libertarians respect your personal and economic liberty to spend your money and do what you want with your life, as long as you're not hurting someone else.
Y'know, P.J. O'Rourke once joked...
Walter Brown, Socialist Party presidential candidate
2000 Socialist Party Florida votes: 622
2000 national total: 5602
"We are dedicated to the abolition of male supremacy and class society, and to the elimination of all forms of oppression."
What's your reaction to the first presidential debate?
I only watched the last two minutes of it. I have a weak stomach.
Are you worried about your votes helping to re-elect Bush?
I don't think a vote for me is going to throw the election in Florida. If ten or fifteen thousand people vote for me, at least they will be able to sleep at night. They'll be able to look their grandchildren in the face and say, "I voted for the best candidate."
If you're elected president, what would you do about the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons?
That is not going to happen in Iran.
Do you know something the CIA doesn't?
Obviously, if anyone is going to come online with nuclear weapons, we need to be aggressive, but I would rule out a preemptive strike. You just do a blockade, like we did with Cuba during the Missile Crisis.
Would you lift the trade embargo on Cuba?
We should do everything we can to normalize relations. I'm not pro-communist, I'm anti-communist. Castro is an abomination. But in large measure we made him by our Cuba policy.
Some voters might get confused trying to decide between your Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party. Is there a difference between you guys?
[Very upset] A massive, massive difference! The Socialist Workers Party are followers of Leon Trotsky. There were two leaders of the Russian Revolution, not against the czar, but against the democratic socialist government headed by Kerensky in 1918 --
That was more than 80 years ago. What about today?
Hold on! Hold on! There's an international movement called the Fourth International -- [Kulchur begins groaning loudly]
Look, these people are not democrats like us! They are not a politically progressive party like we are. [Practically hyperventilating] We don't associate with them and we don't recommend anyone vote for them! Anyone who thinks Trotsky was a valid, viable leader is wrong!
All right, I'm sorry. You're nothing like the Socialist Workers Party.
They're a whole different breed of cat.
Róger Calero, Socialist Workers Party presidential candidate
2000 Socialist Workers Party Florida votes: 562
2000 national total: 7378
"Hurricanes: Is the death toll caused by önatural disaster' or capitalism?"
If elected president, would you repeal the Bush tax cuts?
One hundred percent tax on the rich. No taxes on wages for workers. We're for a workers' and farmers' government, that is the main thing that distinguishes us.
But how can you call for a workers' and farmers' revolution and run for president at the same time?
What's necessary is a mass movement. We participate in the election as a way to organize --
So this is just a tactical move?
Our election campaign is not one of "Vote for me and everything will be fine," but one that points to struggle as the only way we're going to bring about change.
So you're not really serious about winning the election.
We're running a serious campaign to win as many votes as we can. Now, the conditions of class struggle --
So you're in it to win! You want to be sworn in as president on January 20, 2005!
If the majority of working people and farmers think so, yep.
There is a problem: You were born in Nicaragua. And you're still not a citizen. Under the U.S. Constitution, only native-born American citizens can become president.
If the majority of working people in this country think that a worker should become president, a constitutional change will come about very swiftly.
Well, there's another problem. Here in Florida, and in several other states that require an oath of citizenship to run for president, your name doesn't appear on the ballot. James Harris is listed for the Socialist Workers Party.
That is somebody we work with very closely.
Do you trust him? What if you win the election, but he refuses to step aside?
He is somebody that has proved himself, and not just in the Socialist Workers Party.
You've got a lot of faith in this guy. I'm sure you've heard the saying: Absolute power corrupts absolutely. You could win, and then James could change his mind once he gets used to the Oval Office: Screw the revolution! I'm going on Air Force One!
[Slightly amused] I'm not surprised at your reaction, given the tone of the political discussion between the candidates, in which debate has been replaced by innuendo and character assassination. But that's the nature of bourgeois politicians --
And you're about building a movement of workers and farmers!
So let me see if I've got this straight. First, the James Harris/Socialist Workers Party ticket wins the election. Then James alters the constitutional rule of presidential succession and steps aside for you. Then another new constitutional amendment is passed to allow foreign-born folks with green cards -- like you -- to become president.
In a nutshell, that would be the case. We would have a mass mobilization and call for workers' congresses through the unions.
Let's be honest. What are the chances of all this actually happening on November 2?
Well, very slim. [Laughing] Very, very, very slim.
Did Arnold Schwarzenegger put you up to this?
No. Our campaign is a reflection of the changing composition of the working class in the United States.
I've been hearing rumors that the Socialist Workers Party is really just a front group for Arnold Schwarzenegger. He needs to have the constitution changed so, as an Austrian-born citizen, he can run for president in 2008. Is he just using you to break the ice and float this idea to the public?
Well, I don't know about these rumors or why Arnold is doing this. But the fact is undeniable that you see an increasing number of foreign-born workers participating in the struggle. The crisis of capitalism --
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You swear to me, Arnold Schwarzenegger did not put you up to this?
[Getting annoyed] We have run candidates in elections in the United States since 1948.
Sure, but this is the first time you've ever taken the plunge. In the past, the party always ran someone who could actually serve in the office. I'm a little suspicious of your true motive here.
You should check the record. That is a very ridiculous idea.