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Of Independent Mind : The established parties seem to be increasingly irrelevant to the political process. From Ross Perot to Bill Bradley, people are saying the system is broken. Can it be fixed?

August 27, 1995|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

LONDON — In 1992, Democrats made a breakthrough. They broke the Republican lock on the electoral college and won the White House for the first time in 16 years.

In 1994, Republicans made a break through. They stormed the Democrats' power base in the House of Representatives and took control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

Will 1996 be the year Independents make a breakthrough? Events this month suggest the growing irrelevance of political parties. Political developments outside the parties were far more interesting than anything happening in them.

U.S. politics is filled with meaningless events. Campaigns agonize over them. The press chews them over--including how meaningless they are. A week later, they're forgotten.

Case in point: straw polls.

One expert has looked at all the presidential straw polls for the last 20 years where at least a thousand people participated. Did they predict anything?

Nope. Only half the straw polls were won by the candidate who ultimately won the nomination. Straw polls weren't even that good at predicting the eventual primary winner in the same state.

What does it take to do well in straw polls? Money helps. Many of these events, like the recent Iowa straw poll, are fund-raisers. The easiest way to win is to buy lots of tickets.

Organization helps, too. If you've got labor unions or teachers or churches working for you, as Democrat Walter F. Mondale did in 1984 and as a Republican Pat Robertson did in 1988, you can just bus 'em in.

It also helps if you're a candidate who attracts true believers. You know--the sort of people who stay till the end of meetings. In 1984, anti-nuclear liberal activists supported Democrat Alan Cranston. They helped him win a lot of straw polls. Anyone hear of President Cranston?

This year, conservative activists are helping Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) pursue a straw poll strategy. Gramm has won straw polls in South Carolina, California, Michigan, Louisiana and Arizona. And last weekend, he held front-runner Bob Dole to an embarrassing tie in the Iowa straw poll.

Straw polls create the perception of momentum. Stories in the press. Gossip among political activists. Losing candidates like to say the only poll that counts is the one on election day. All well and good, except nobody's going to cast a real vote in a GOP primary or caucus for another six months.

So who's got the real momentum? The only way to tell now is to look at the public-opinion polls. And what they show is, nothing has happened. The race is where it was six months ago: Dole and a bunch of other guys.

While the GOP was immersed in meaningless events, the country witnessed two serious challenges to the political process this month. First, from Ross Perot. Then from Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.). In those cases, unlike the Iowa straw poll, something meaningful was going on: a revolt of the moderates against the polarization of American politics.

Perot and Bradley have a lot in common. They share the view that politics isn't working. In his closing remarks to the United We Stand America conference in Dallas, Perot demanded a wholesale reform of the U.S. political process--election reforms, campaign finance reforms, lobbying reforms. Bradley explained his impending retirement from the Senate with the observation, "We live in a time when, on a basic level, politics is broken."

Perot and Bradley are known for their determination to tackle big issues--the deficit in Perot's case, tax reform in Bradley's. And for their willingness to take on big targets, like the President and both major parties. "Republicans are infatuated with the magic of the private sector and reflexively criticize government as the enemy of freedom," Bradley said in his statement. "Democrats distrust the market, preach government as the answer to our problems and prefer the bureaucrats they know to the consumer they can't control."

Bradley immediately turned himself into the thinking man's Perot when he added, "I am leaving the Senate but I am not leaving public life . . . . I have not ruled out an Independent route."

There's a big constituency in American politics for a responsible, nonpartisan political leader. Right now, a majority of voters say they would be dissatisfied with a choice between Bill Clinton and Dole. Next year's political calendar gives that constituency a chance to take the stage.

With the 1996 primaries so front-loaded, we'll probably know who the nominees are before the end of March. Then begins the season of our discontent--the five-month period between primaries and conventions when the voters get restless.

Clinton won the Democratic nomination on April 7, 1992, in New York. That day, the choice became clear--Clinton or Bush. "That's the choice?" voters said. "Bring on more candidates." So a third candidate, Perot, started moving up in the polls. By June, he was the front-runner.

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