Constitution Party Hopes to Take Politics to the Extreme in 2004

Can the Constitution Party take politics to the extreme in 2004?

CLACKAMAS, Ore. -- They've journeyed west from as far as Pennsylvania and Maryland, this band of true believers, 100 strong. Some of them decked out in their Sunday finest, others casual in plaid work shirts and jeans, they have huddled together on a rainy April Saturday in a low-lit hotel conference room in this blue-collar Portland suburb that gave the world Tanya Harding, figure skater gone bad.

Under a stark white plastic banner touting "Life, Liberty, Limited Government," they have come to extol the goodness of God, traditional families and automatic machine guns. They have come to inveigh against taxes, immigrants, abortion, the United Nations, the "homosexual agenda" and President George W. Bush.

But maybe more than anything, they have come to absorb the wisdom of the roly-poly man with bushy gray eyebrows who is making his way, through a heartfelt standing ovation, to the podium beneath the banner.

Howard Phillips does not disappoint the faithful. "We've got to be ready," he proclaims in his booming voice, pausing to savor a roomful of amens and yeses. "We've got to be ready for when God chooses to let us restore our once-great Republic."

Since the early 1990s, when he founded what is now the Constitution Party, Phillips has been the self-appointed prophet of far-right American politics. A one-time aide to Richard Nixon who resigned in protest of that president's "liberal" policies, Phillips pulled together a coalition of extremist third parties before the 1992 elections, forming the U.S. Taxpayers Party (the name was changed to Constitution Party in 1999).

At first, the goal was to use the party as a vehicle for Pat Buchanan, should the conservative commentator decide to bolt the gop in a run for the White House. Buchanan reportedly toyed with the idea, most seriously in 2000, but the nabob of American nativism ultimately chose to seize control of the Reform Party, which could offer him millions in matching campaign funds generated by Ross Perot's showing in 1996.

Unable to lure a marquee candidate, Phillips has ended up carrying his party's banner in each of the last three elections. Every time around, the party has won ballot access in an increasing number of states — up to a solid 41 in 2000. Even so, Phillips has never collected more than 0.2% of the presidential vote.

As 2004 approaches, the 62-year-old Phillips, who gets around with the aid of a cane, seems determined to sit out the campaign. But as he addresses the Constitution Party's national committee members in Clackamas, he waxes optimistic about the prospects for another nominee next November.

"I think it's likely we'll have a greater opportunity in 2004 than ever before," he declares.

Why such confidence? Simple: for the first time in the party's history, as Phillips reminds his true believers, there will be "no Ross Perot, no Pat Buchanan, no Alan Keyes, no Gary Bauer" to siphon away the votes of fundamentalist right-wingers.

The time just might be nigh, Phillips says, for the most extreme organized political party in America to "wield our terrible swift sword."

Third Parties on the March
However far-fetched Phillips' prophecy might sound, he does have a point. Third parties in the U.S., largely moribund since the heyday of George Wallace, have steadily picked up steam since Perot's first run for president in 1992.

Four million voters rebuffed the Democrats and Republicans in 2000, double the number of third-party voters just four years before. The average third-party vote has climbed to 4%, according to the nation's leading authority on the subject, Ballot Access News publisher Richard Winger.

And with four of every 10 young voters now avoiding the major parties and registering as independents, third-party voting is highly likely to continue its ascent.

So far, most of the third-party energy has come from the center right (Perot's Reformers) and from the left (the Green Party, most notably). When Pat Buchanan's hostile takeover blew the Reform Party to bits, the most promising far-right alternative vanished.

The latest project of the "Buchanan Brigade," the America First Party, made a promising start in 2002 with an anti-immigration, anti-tax, religious-right message virtually identical to the Constitution Party's. But the America Firsters broke apart earlier this year, when a squabble erupted over a scheduled speech at the party's national convention by James "Bo" Gritz, former Green Beret and self-appointed guru of the antigovernment militia movement.

Though the party is working to patch up the differences — and keep Gritz and his comrades at arm's length — its national convention was canceled, and its plans to field a presidential candidate next year were reportedly scrapped.

As a result, the Constitution Party looks like the only viable option in 2004 for far-right purists who find themselves just as disgusted with President Bush as their counterparts on the left.

But that begs a question: How viable can this party be? Some of the news in Clackamas was encouraging: the party now lays claim to being "the nation's third largest political party in terms of actual voter registration."

As of April, there were dues-paying party members in 49 states — including some Reform Party refugees, most notably Ezola Foster, the African-American fundamentalist and former head of the California chapter of the far-right John Birch Society who was Buchanan's surprising choice for vice president in 2000.

But while the party has slowly built a national foundation, no Constitution Party candidate has yet broken through with a significant victory, unless you count the pair of Oregonians who recently won seats on local planning commissions.