Just as 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.
Except for 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."
Now that 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.
The Reform 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.
Perot has 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 from within.
Minnesota 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 possible run.
Trump vs. Buchanan? Should we laugh or cry?
The Anti-Compassionate Conservative While 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.
One question 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.
At least, 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 In 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 reputation.
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."
I'm 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.
And what 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.
While he 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.
But Buchanan's 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.
It would 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.