The Constitution Party, the most extreme far right party in the U.S., is gearing up for a political power grab 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.
Racism, Religion and Resentment
The most vexing challenge for Phillips' true believers is finding a way to attract as many supporters as their rigid platform (see sidebar, above) is guaranteed to repulse.
How many potential voters, after all, will punch their ballots for a party that calls for outlawing abortion even in cases of rape or incest, withdrawing from the United Nations, overturning every Constitutional amendment passed since 1913 (which would include the amendments authorizing the federal income tax and the right of women to vote), halting all immigration, abolishing the income tax and re-legalizing assault weapons?
Those planks only begin to tell the story. In its brief history, the Constitution Party has flirted egregiously with some of the most extreme elements of the antigovernment militia movement and of Christian Reconstruction, a radical theology that calls for imposing Old Testament laws — stoning to death adulterers and gay men and lesbians, to name just two.
Among the party's current roster of local candidates is a Salt Lake City man, Jack Gray, who has no qualms about presenting himself as a member of David Duke's white supremacist hate group, the European American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO).
The party's official "key race" for 2003 is a gubernatorial bid by Mississippi's most virulent Confederate flag defender, John Thomas Cripps, a long-time member of the white-supremacist hate group, League of the South.
Even on what is probably its most popular issue — staunch opposition to abortion — the Constitution Party has been able to gain little traction. "As long as the Republican Party is officially pro-life," says Micah Sifry, author of Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America, "the Constitution Party is going to have trouble convincing people to join what is essentially a fundamentalist political party."
So far, Sifry says Phillips' party has functioned mostly as a "doctrinal" organization, more committed to "bearing witness against a corrupt and seemingly impenetrable political system" than to actually winning large numbers of votes. To make a real dent at the polls, as Sifry writes in his book, a party has to be willing to "engage in dialogue with real voters, not just true believers, no matter how hard that might be."
Outgunning the NRA
Judging from the rhetoric in Clackamas, engaging with real voters might be a thorny task indeed. Until their spiritual leader took center stage, the Constitution Party stalwarts reserved their loudest amen chorus for a balls-to-the-wall speech by Jim Ludwick, chair of Oregonians for Immigration Reform.
Ludwick roused the congregation with an enthusiastic endorsement of the Reconquista conspiracy theory — the notion, espoused by anti-immigration extremists, that Mexico, in league with Mexican Americans, is "invading" the United States, bent on "reconquering" the Southwest territory it lost in the mid-19th century.
"President Vicente Fox has made it a priority to gain control of parts of the United States," Ludwick asserted. His tone grew even harder toward the end of his address, when Ludwick launched into a litany of cautionary tales about illegal immigrants who have committed heinous crimes, including accused serial sniper Lee Malvo and the infamous "railroad killer," Angel Reyes Resendez.
While many voters would surely be turned off by such blatant bigotry, others might get queasy listening to Kevin Starrett, white-bearded head of the Oregon Firearms Federation. Starrett won enthusiastic applause by grimly denouncing the nation's most powerful pro-gun organization.
"The NRA won't stand up for gun owners," Starrett declared. He then announced that the Constitution Party had joined a more extreme gun-owners' coalition, Keep and Bear Arms, which recently started a campaign to end the federal ban on many assault weapons.
Into the 'Official Crackpot Zone'
And then there's Lon Mabon, whose name has been bandied about in party circles as a potential presidential candidate in 2004. A diminutive 56-year-old with a wiry mustache and a soft, tentative speaking voice that belies his ferocious convictions, Mabon made a name for himself in the 1980s and '90s with his Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA), which championed a series of state ballot initiatives to curtail gay rights and abortion rights.
With the successive failure of each initiative, Mabon's stock fell among conservative Oregonians, and his Constitution Party run for U.S. Senate last year garnered only 2% of the vote.
It didn't help that Mabon had spent 42 days in jail earlier in 2002, cited for contempt of court after refusing to show up for a debtor's hearing. His Citizens Alliance had been ordered to pay $31,500 after a jury hearing a civil lawsuit against his group found that an employee used excessive force in kicking a gay-rights advocate out of a meeting.
When Mabon failed to show up for the hearing to determine whether he could pay, claiming that the presiding judge had no jurisdiction because he hadn't taken a proper oath of office, the state's largest newspaper, The Oregonian, editorialized that Mabon had "crossed over into the official crackpot zone."
But his Constitution Party kindred in Clackamas listened approvingly to Mabon's rambling speech about Biblical governance — probably because they largely agree with his political philosophy, which leans heavily toward the theocratic.
"I hear the voice of God saying that the [government] must surrender to the requirements of His Holiness," Mabon has written. "This means that the Governor, U.S. Senators, Representatives and all elected officials should be allowed into office only after they have proved to the Citizens ... that they are indeed obedient to the Will and Holiness of God."
Can such a blend of God, guns and xenophobia lure a sizable number of right-wingers into the fold? Doubtful, thinks Micah Sifry, but not entirely out of the question — especially if the Constitution Party decides to loosen its insistence that candidates fully agree with its all-too-specific platform. Such rigidity virtually rules out what any third party needs most.
"You need a breakaway politician, or a celebrity, or a wealthy person to make this thing fly," says Sifry. "If you have someone with charisma, or someone with enough bucks to buy charisma" — a fundamentalist Ross Perot, in other words — "you can draw a crowd."
Howard Phillips' party has tried valiantly to place a crowd-pleaser on its national ticket. After Buchanan went Reform in 2000, the Constitution Party won a flurry of national publicity when former New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith said he wanted the nomination. Two weeks later, Smith backed away — and like other right-wing luminaries who've flirted with the party, he was nowhere to be seen in Clackamas.
In the absence of heavy-hitters, party leaders attempted to flatter a Maryland attorney named Michael Peroutka into declaring his candidacy for 2004. Peroutka's rising-star status in the party appears to stem from his personal wealth and his founding of the Institute for the Constitution, which conducts courses and seminars on the "Biblical view of law and government."
The 51-year-old Peroutka, an ardent pro-gun and anti-abortion activist, brought his family along to the national committee meeting. They watched as his low-key speech on Friday afternoon, contrasting the "Biblical" with the "Pagan view of law and government," inspired a raucous standing ovation and a resolution — unanimously carried — to draft him as the party's choice for president.
Overcome by the display, the ruddy-faced Peroutka fought back tears as he staved off his compatriots' plans, insisting that he needed more time to consider mounting a campaign.
Raising an Army
Whatever the ultimate fate of Howard Phillips' far-fetched prophecy, the Constitution Party is well positioned in 2004 to fill at least one time-honored role for American third parties. "While most of the concerns raised by third parties have been progressive," notes Micah Sifry, "they have sometimes also been repositories of resentment."
The Know-Nothings, arguably the most influential third party in American history, provided just such a repository, challenging the dominant Democrats and Whigs in the 1850s by riding a wave of xenophobic resentment toward immigrants in general and Roman Catholics in particular.
In the 1940s and '60s, segregationists Strom Thurmond and George Wallace won chunks of the electoral vote for their own third parties. (Wallace's vehicle, the American Independent Party, came under the Constitution Party tent in 1992.)
The Constitution Party is doing its darndest to take advantage of today's fresh forms of right-wing disgruntlement. Immediately following the Supreme Court's decision this June in Lawrence vs. Texas, the landmark case overturning Texas' sodomy statute, the party dispatched a press release emphasizing that it was "the first national political party to denounce" the ruling.
But that wasn't all. "[T]he Constitution Party has also called for Congress to draw up articles of impeachment against Justices Kennedy, O'Conner [sic], Breyer, Souter, Ginsberg, and Stevens, the six justices who refused to uphold the Texas law." (With no sense of irony, the press release went on to advertise the Constitution Party's "strong advocacy of less government.")
Not only is the Constitution Party robustly anti-gay and anti-immigrant, it is equally anti-Bush. The claque in Clackamas was chockablock with denunciations of the president's "unconstitutional" wars, his theft of civil liberties through the Patriot Act, and his failure to ban RU-486, the so-called "morning-after pill." ("Isn't it great to have a pro-life president?" Phillips sneered.)
Meanwhile, at the back of the conference room, Live Free or Die Campaign Supplies was doing a brisk business with buttons proclaiming Bush an "International Terrorist" (see right), and with similar buttons calling out Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Attorney General John Ashcroft ("Domestic Terrorist") and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (ditto).
By the end of the weekend, vendor Tim Farness had completely sold out of buttons bearing the hated images of Bush, Powell and Ridge.
Souvenirs aside, the clear highlight of the weekend remained Phillips' Saturday sermon, which ended with an anecdote that encapsulated the curious combination of Bibles and belligerence that characterizes the Constitution Party.
Leaning familiarly forward on the podium, Phillips told his congregation one of those too-good-to-be-true stories that preachers love to tell. His grandchildren were headed somewhere on a plane, it seems, and a flight attendant complimented one of the kids on their exemplary behavior.
"That's how we're taught," Phillips' grandson replied.
"We?" asked the flight attendant.
"Yes, there are six of us."
"Your poor mother," the flight attendant sighed.
"Yes," agreed the polite young Phillips. "She wishes she could have 12, but she's only got six."
"What, is she trying to raise a whole football team?" the flight attendant joked.
"No," answered the devout young man. "We're raising an army."
Grandpa Phillips was almost too choked up to deliver the punch line. But he managed, like any good preacher, to reign in his emotions and turn the anecdote into a handy analogy. The Constitution Party is doing the very same thing, you see.
"We are raising up an army," Phillips proclaimed, "and we shall take back this nation!"