What the Reform Party Signifies ; Pat Buchanan's and Donald Trump's Switch from GOP Shows How Personality Politics Is Replacing Party Ideals

Article excerpt

Inside the Beltway, it's easy to laugh at the Reform Party.

In one corner, you've got a rabble-rousing populist that opponents call a "Hitler lover." In the other, a mega-wealthy real estate developer with large alimony payments and a well-honed sense of self-promotion.

These two men - Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump, who have both now officially quit the Republican Party and joined the Reformers - are the new dueling front men for a party that, in seven years, has never been short of entertaining.

Behind them stand the party's battling impresarios, eccentric millionaire Ross Perot and the formerly boa-clad Minnesota governor, Jesse Ventura.

But in some real ways, the Reform Party offers the most vivid example yet of the state of party politics at the end of the 20th century - an ideological free-for-all, where voters now attach more importance to a candidate's persona than to party principles.

Even if some voters do still hew to one party line or another, the fine print of party platforms is declining in importance. Personality has become the dominant factor in presidential politics - in all the major parties - particularly at a time of peace and prosperity. Media-driven campaigns, fueled by big money, are only accelerating this trend.

The 2000 presidential race is "basically a high-stakes popularity contest," says Del Ali, an independent pollster.

And so, enter Pat versus The Donald. Mr. Buchanan is definitely running for president. Mr. Trump is still just in the "exploratory committee" phase but has stated "it's a very great possibility that I will run."

In Trump's case, the messenger is the message: an in-your-face risk-taker whose policy views almost seem a footnote to the man's persona. But in fact, Trump seems a better fit for the Reformers existing platform, which blends economic conservatism with social libertarianism.

At its conventions, Reform Party members have intentionally steered clear of sticky issues such as abortion, saying they don't belong in politics. Now, some top Reform members say that silence opens the way to Buchanan's staunchly anti-abortion view.

Others, who oppose Buchanan, say his hard line could drive a wedge into the party. If Buchanan wins the Reform nomination, the party's social libertarians may opt to start yet another party.

The irony in the possible Buchanan-Trump matchup is that both men left the Republican Party to get away from the likes of each other. Buchanan says he left because the party had lost its way on core principles, such as the abortion issue.

Trump says he quit because "the Republicans are just too crazy right," a comment that he could easily have been aiming at the Buchananites, judging from some of Trump's comments about the conservative commentator. …