The Indie Dudes

First came Ross Perot in 1992. In 1998, we got Jesse "The Body" Ventura. In 2000, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was a political sensation. Now it's "The Terminator," running for governor of California.

They are the "indie dudes"—extremely independent and very popular with young males, such as the dude outside a Los Angeles movie theatre who said, "Arnold Schwarzenegger movies are just like pizza. When they're good, they are really good. When they're bad, they are still pretty good."

These young guys know what they like: candidates who are tough, and independent, and want to take on the Establishment. "The Washington Establishment is in a panic mode," McCain said a few days after he beat George W. Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire Republican primary. "They're rolling out all their guns, and they're shooting everything they can." When Schwarzenegger declared his candidacy last month, he vowed, "I will go to Sacramento, and I will clean house."

Perot and Ventura were literally independents. McCain and Schwarzenegger are nominally Republicans, but no party tells them what to do. "Political intolerance by any political party is neither a Judeo-Christian nor an American value," McCain said on February 28, 2000, when he denounced the Religious Right's influence over the Republican Party.

The indie dudes are self-made men, not party men. Perot made himself rich. Schwarzenegger pumped himself up. Ventura made a spectacle of himself. McCain is a war hero. Each of them became famous outside of politics. To them, politics—the sort of thing a professional politician such as California Democratic Gov. Gray Davis does—is the enemy of problem-solving. Their mantra? Just fix it. That's exactly what Perot promised to do about the federal budget deficit in 1992.

One of Perot's favorite themes was that government should be run more like a business. He had in mind the efficiency and results-oriented approach that people associate with the private sector. But business is not a democracy. Turn business into a democracy, and you'd get more politics and less problem-solving. The Perot movement never quite understood the undemocratic implications of the slogan, "Ross for Boss!"

The indie dudes like to call themselves reformers who want to clean up the system and take on the special interests. In his 1999 announcement speech, McCain declared that his campaign was "a fight to take our government back from the power brokers and special interests." And in announcing his bid, Schwarzenegger declared, "The biggest problem that we have is that California has been run now by special interests. All of the politicians are not anymore making the moves for the people...."

Being outsiders is certainly a large part of the indie dudes' appeal. They run against the political class and have contempt for it. The Perot movement began to take off in April 1992, just when President George H.W. Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton clinched their respective party nominations. Millions of voters heard the news and asked, "Those are the choices?" And Perot began to rise in the polls. Most Perot supporters were former Bush voters who believed Bush had betrayed them. His broken no-new-taxes pledge was a symbol of that betrayal. It wasn't the tax hike that angered them as much as the broken promise. How about Clinton? He was the candidate who "didn't inhale."

Political consultant Ed Rollins worked for Perot in 1992. Asked to describe Schwarzenegger's appeal, Rollins said, "What people want is an outsider to come in and provide leadership. They think he can do that." It's like six degrees of separation. Perot founded the Reform Party. Ventura got elected governor of Minnesota as the Reform Party candidate. McCain embraced Ventura. Schwarzenegger went to Ventura's swearing-in.

Is there an indie dude ideology? Strangely enough, yes. They share a libertarian distrust of government and want to get government out of your pockets, out of your bedroom. "We will not let Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson run the Republican Party," McCain said in 2000.

In the 1992 vice presidential debate, Perot's running mate was asked to describe his views on abortion. "I believe that a woman owns her own body and what she does with it is her own business, period," Adm. James Stockdale answered.

The indie dudes do occasionally get philosophical. "I'm fiscally conservative, very conservative," Schwarzenegger said. Asked to elaborate, he added, "When it comes to social issues, I am moderate." Here's how Ventura described his philosophy in January 1999, a few months after he got elected: "I'm fiscally conservative. So if you add up my vote and the Republican candidate's vote, you've got 71 percent, and on the social side, I'm pretty moderate to liberal, which is more Democratic, and if you add up those totals, you get 65 percent." Ventura defined himself as "the new wave" in American politics, "fiscally conservative with social moderate to liberal policies," and he called that combination "something that's missing in both of those parties."

What we're seeing now is a new wave of candidates, and their young male supporters. They share the same view of government. Call it the indie dude philosophy: "Don't tell me what to do."