Just as Except for Now that The Reform Perot has Minnesota Trump vs.
the Warren Beatty for President candle began to flicker, here was a political
comet. Picture a three-way race with Buchanan: the debates might even be interesting.
And the emergence of a Buchanan factor would give politicos much gabbing material.
Will he hurt the GOP? My guess is that most of us in Washington who know him
(I periodically cohosted a daily radio show with him a few years ago and have
yapped with him on various television shows) thought it unlikely he would show
the party of Reagan his derriere. After all, he is a tribalist, one who views
the world as a cacophonous clash of competing clans, in which group-identity
is paramount and each band tussles with the others in a zero-sum contest for
cultural, economic and political dominance. This accounts for his penchant for
making harsh statements about other tribes–Jews, blacks, gays–comments
that have won him a reputation among some as a bigot. And his two chief tribes
have been the church and the GOP. But now he seems to be yielding to the siren
call of the Reform Party.
his Republican Party card, what does Buchanan stand to lose by abandoning his
longtime partisan tribe? In the Republican primary contest, Buchanan, who pulled
off a stunning and ego-enhancing win in the 1996 New Hampshire primary, has
been going nowhere. A recent poll of New Hampshire GOPsters indicated that a
measly five percent of them were ready to march behind Pitchfork Pat. Steve
Forbes, whom Buchanan beat in the Granite State in 1996, had twice that support.
Elizabeth Dole, the newcomer whose husband Buchanan beat as well in the previous
New Hampshire primary, scored three times the level of Buchanan’s support.
The only Republican presidential candidate with a higher unfavorable rating
than Buchanan (54 percent) was Dan Quayle (60 percent). The archconservative
editorialists at New Hampshire’s Manchester Union Leader last week
poked Buchanan in the nose: "The one thing he may be right about is that
he personally has little chance of gaining the Republican nomination–not
because the ‘fix’ is in for Bush, but that Pat, while he has a strong
message, is unfortunately not the right messenger."
Buchanan has acknowledged his flirtation with the Reform Party, loyal Republicans
in New Hampshire and elsewhere are even less likely to regard this apostate-in-the-making
warmly. In essence, he has given the party the finger. (If religious right leader
and presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who, like Buchanan, assails Republican
corporatists, can stay in the party, why can’t Buchanan?) Buchanan, in
explaining his dissatisfaction, has been referring to an old chestnut of Democrat-turned-Republican
Ronald Reagan: "I didn’t leave the party; the party left me."
In a rather concrete sense, Buchanan is right. During his third campaign for
president, Republican voters are not buying his angry-man, bash-the-globalists,
decry-the-bankers conservative populism. They’re probably too busy day-trading.
With his future in the GOP bleaker than it was two weeks ago, he has two choices:
ditch his presidential ambitions or head toward the Reform Party shell.
Party is ripe for Buchanan’s plucking. Not only does it have a dowry of
$12.6 million in federal funds for its next presidential nominee, its rules
are wide open and afford anyone with an active following a solid chance of snatching
the nomination. Buchanan, with the diehard supporters of his Buchanan Brigades,
probably could not be stopped from gaining the nomination and then taking over
the Reform Party–unless a stronger candidate emerges.
let people know he’s semi-sweet on Buchanan. The Reform Party has ducked
taking stands on the divisive social issues (abortion, gay rights) that are
the oxygen of much of Buchanan’s fire-breathing. But Perot and his supporters
generally share Buchanan’s outrage with corporate-friendly trade pacts,
like NAFTA, and are sympathetic with his America First/anti-globalist sentiments.
And with Buchanan heading the ticket, the party has a shot at collecting five
percent of the national vote, which it needs to qualify for federal support
in the next presidential election. But Perot is a billionaire-fool if
he thinks he’ll get his party back after leasing it to Buchanan. Once Buchanan
dispatches his orders, his Buchaneers will descend pirate-like upon the party:
They’ll stuff more envelopes, stay longer at meetings. They’ll make
the party their own. This will be more than a nomination, it will be a coup
Gov. Jesse Ventura, who frowns upon a Buchanan nomination, presumably knows
what will happen. But party rules are party rules–there is not much that
Ventura can do to keep Buchanan out of the ring. (Perot’s number-one lieutenant,
Russ Verney, who recently lost the chairmanship of the party to a Ventura ally,
is staying in office as a lame duck long enough to guarantee that the Ventura
folks don’t fool with the rules.) Ventura has said he won’t seek the
party’s presidential nomination, making good on his promise to serve his
constituents. Thus, he has only one move to throw: find a candidate who can
vanquish Buchanan. "That’s our challenge–to find an alternative
to Pat and to beat them," said Dean Barkley, a Reform Party leader aligned
with Ventura. "If we don’t, I think the long-term prospects of the
National Reform Party will be jeopardized." So the political world has
been treated to the absurd scene of Ventura talking to Donald Trump about a
Buchanan? Should we laugh or cry?
The Anti-Compassionate Conservative
political junkies await Pat’s Big Decision, much gum-flapping is being
devoted to how a Buchanan candidacy on the Reform Party line would affect the
presidential race. The first-glance line was that it was bad news for George
W. Bush and the Republicans because a bolting Buchanan would take other Republicans
with him. But Buchanan has not been amassing large numbers of Republican supporters.
There’s reason to speculate that his third-party presence in the contest
could help Bush. The Democratic strategy for dealing with Bush–or any other
Republican nominee–will be to demonize the GOPer as a tool of the far-right.
Last week, California Lieut. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat, assailed what
he called Bush’s right-wing record on gun control and school vouchers,
saying that Hispanics in California won’t be fooled by Bush’s Spanish
phrasebook. But if Buchanan is in the race, it’ll be a tough assignment
for Democrats to stick Bush with the right-wing extremist tag. Next to Buchanan,
Bush will look pretty damn compassionate. And since Buchanan would be blasting
away at NAFTA and the free-traders of Wall Street and Washington, he might be
able to win over some Democrat-leaning labor voters. Since his first presidential
bid in 1992–when he challenged W’s father–Buchanan has been preaching
an economic nationalism that questions the unfettered global capitalism cheered
on by both parties, and this message has appeal to workers who believe both
parties are in hock to corporate contributors. As of last week, Buchanan was
considering asking Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa to be his running mate. Sure,
Hoffa is a tainted and inexperienced union leader who only this year became
head of the Teamsters, thanks to his famous last name and a scandal that drove
his reform-minded predecessor, Ron Carey, out of office. But this possibility
shows Buchanan has the potential to draw union support.
is, will Buchanan, if he grabs for Perot’s crown, tone down his act so
as not to alienate too many Reform Party stalwarts? If he has a national platform
and a place on the ballot and in the debates, will he lead with his wrath-of-God
social issues, or concentrate on the economic and reform issues that he has
in common with much of the Reform Party? (Ventura, by the way, is not an anti-NAFTA
nationalist.) Even if Buchanan does draw in his fangs, his mean-spirited rhetoric
of the past will probably be excavated should he make it to the general election.
it should be. Buchanan has defended the South’s right to fight the Civil
War. He referred to Martin Luther King Jr. as a "fraud and a demagogue."
He vehemently opposed sanctions against the racist government of South Africa.
He called Hitler "an individual of great courage." During the Gulf
War, he charged that the Israel lobby in the United States was single-handedly
responsible for driving America to war–a position that caused conservative
writer William F. Buckley Jr. to brand him an anti-Semite. In 1993, he told
the Christian Coalition, "Our culture is superior because our religion
is Christianity." In one of his more infamous remarks, he called AIDS "nature’s
retribution for violating the laws of nature," suggesting God was striking
down gay men as punishment. His most Pat-being-Pat moment came at the 1992 GOP
convention, when he declared he was a commander in the culture war. As he weighs
a leap into third-party politics, one can wonder if Buchanan is looking to take
over the Reform Party so he can open a new and well-fortified front in that
culture war he relishes.
The World According to Pat
the past few years, Buchanan has eased up on the group-hate rhetoric. But, still,
to many people that is how he is most known. Last week, I was at a literary
reception at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. During a conversation
with several journalists, a veteran radio reporter–a man of liberal proclivities–said
that he’d heard that Buchanan, in his new book, praises Hitler and declares
that the United States and Western Europe should have left him alone, since
Hitler was an ardent anticommunist. The others in the discussion gasped, as
they assumed this characterization was the truth. That says a lot for Buchanan’s
When I returned
home, I picked up my copy of A Republic, Not An Empire: Reclaiming America’s
Destiny, whose cover features a determined-looking Buchanan in front of
the Stars and Stripes, gazing, I gathered, toward the future. Days earlier,
he’d sent me the book, a defense of what he calls a "traditional-nationalist"
foreign policy (and what others call isolationism), with a nice note, commenting
that he supposed I would agree with his view that President McKinley was wrong
to take the Philippines during the Spanish-American War but would disagree with
his belief that President Polk fought a just war in conquering Mexico and grabbing
much of California. (Buchanan was correct on both counts: I am a fan of neither
the William Randolph Hearst-stimulated war against Spain nor Manifest Destiny.)
Buchanan informed me that the book explained "the heart of my argument
with the GOP."
sympathetic to Buchanan’s criticism of foreign intervention, but in this
volume, he says Vietnam was a good war and World War II a bad
war. Such notions won’t help him on the campaign trail–in or out of
the Reform Party. Wait until Perot reads his critique of U.S. involvement in
World War II. (Hardball host Chris Matthews has excoriated Buchanan for
dumping on WWII.) The radio journalist at the reception did not have it quite
right, but he was close: Buchanan doesn’t praise Hitler, but he does question
why the United States and its European allies didn’t leave Hitler alone
and stay "out of the titanic clash between the Nazis and the Bolsheviks"
of Stalin’s Russia. Stalin was more of a butcher than Hitler in the years
leading up to the war, Buchanan asserts. Had Britain and France not vowed to
stand by Poland should Hitler invade it–which he did–there might have
been no war between Germany and Western Europe, Buchanan suggests. Hitler, he
argues, was only interested in expanding to the east, toward Russia. And through
1940 he was no threat to the United States.
of stopping a genocidal maniac? Buchanan does not ignore the plight of the Jews.
By entering the war, he claims, the United States ended up in a position to
do less for the Jews of Europe: "Once the United States became a belligerent,
it lost any leverage or ability to intervene diplomatically on behalf of the
victims of Hitler." As if that might have been a realistic option and as
if Buchanan is pitching a stay-out-of-it position because that would have been
better for the Jews and the others massacred by the Third Reich. The drift of
his entire book is that the United States should not intervene to prevent holocausts
abroad. Not then, not now.
resurrects George Washington’s advice to avoid foreign entanglements in
reassessing the U.S.’s involvement in World War II, he defends Vietnam
as "a legitimate war of containment that could have been won." Let’s
see Buchanan explain in a presidential debate why it was crucial for the United
States to muck around in Vietnam while it should have given Hitler a pass. Throughout
the book he does rattle the conventions of Republican–and Democratic–establishment
foreign policy. He opposes the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe (as pointless
and an unnecessary provocation of Russia) and maintains it’s time to let
the United States’ wealthy allies in Europe and Asia defend themselves.
He argues for Puerto Rican self-determination. (He’d be happy to have the
Puerto Ricans cut loose from the United States.) He attacks the influence of
ethnic lobbies on U.S. foreign policy, particularly the Israel lobby, and calls
for tight restrictions on immigration "to give this country time to assimilate
and Americanize the thirty million who have come to these shores in three decades,
so that future generations [presumably, unlike the present one] will think of
America–not the ancestral homeland–first." He worries that by
2040, America will cease to be a "First World nation" and that a "majority
of Americans will no longer claim Europe as their ancestral home." And
he strikes out at faceless globalists and corporate managers more interested
in a "utopian" New World Order (that allows them to pocket profits
around the planet) than their own native land.
not so clear in defining who the enemy is on this field of global battle or
what should be done. Should we build up international unions to do battle with
the transnational corporations? Nah. Draft trade accords that bolster wages
around the globe, recognize environmental concerns and guarantee workers in
other lands the right to organize? Nah. All Buchanan can do is bash the UN and
the international court of law. He doesn’t give a hoot about non-Americans
and doesn’t see that the effort to counter the excesses of global capitalism
requires global visions, not a jingoistic hunkering-down. But that forward-looking
gaze of his sees no further than the border. "The greatest threat today
to the survival of the Republic," he maintains, "may well lie in the
loss of our American identity." And we know what sort of identity he’s
talking about. Non-Europeans (and non-Christians, too?) need not apply.
be a shame if an identity-obsessed Buchanan took his America-Uber-Alles spiel
and left the GOP. He does challenge and discomfit the Republican Party, while
at the same time serving as a reminder of the extremism that many in the party
have sought to exploit. It would be hard to pronounce his third-party presence
in the race as a good thing. While his blasts at corporate-controlled trade
policy and his attacks on an expansionistic foreign policy are needed within
the national discourse, they come with too high a price tag: his nativistic
impulses and his desire to lead a culture war. I’d rather see Buchanan
fighting within a tribe than leading one of his own.