Posted on October 04, 1999 in Washington Watch

The political antics of TV commentator Pat Buchanan are threatening, once again, to create upheaval in U.S. presidential politics. In 1992 and 1996, Buchanan’s blistering presidential campaigns exposed deep divisions within the Republican Party. The difference this year is that he is not only, once again, pressing at the fault lines of the Republican coalition, but he may end up causing a bit of havoc within the fledging Reform Party, as well.

Buchanan, prior to his staring role on CNN’s “Crossfire”, was a long-time Republican political operative. Between 1966 and 1987, he spent 12 years working in the White House for Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan.

Like his mentors Nixon and Reagan, Buchanan believes in the power of ideas–their ability to mobilize people and build power. And as Reagan’s communication director, Buchanan was a shaper of the ideas that helped to sustain the Reagan Republican coalition.

Reagan’s 1980 victory over President Jimmy Carter ushered in a 12-year-long Republican domination of the White House. But Reagan’s winning coalition was not a simple affair. There were the Cold War hawks and the small government anti-tax conservatives to be sure. There were also deeply religious proponents of morality and a significant segment of angry middle and working class Americans who blamed Carter and the Democrats for everything from the economic collapse, to the moral decline and the “weakness” of America that had been exposed in the Iran hostage crisis. It was this latter group’s abandonment of the Democratic Party that was primarily responsible for Reagan’s victories.

While Reagan was able, for a time, to hold this group together, Bush, who succeeded Reagan, had difficulty sustaining support, in particular, from the religious right and the “Reagan Democrats.”

Buchanan’s challenge of Bush’s 1992 reelection bid exposed Bush’s weaknesses. In his vigorous state-by-state primary campaign against the sitting President, Buchanan often times won over 30 percent of the vote. The Buchanan voters were those who had been hurt by the economic downturn. They were angry voters – the same group that had turned against Carter – but now it was Buchanan who gave focus and voice to their anger.

The Buchanan message is a simple one – a combination of social conservatism, economic populism and near xenophobic protectionism.

Buchanan maintains a rigid and narrowly defined moral appeal. He is “pro-life,” meaning anti-abortion. And he is pro-family, meaning that he is against any and all forms of acceptance of homosexuality. His “moral” message was best captured in his chilling 1992 Republican convention call for a “cultural war to take back America.”

What distinguishes Buchanan from other Republican candidates, however, is economic populism. He is a protectionist and economic nationalist, who opposes the closing of U.S. factories and the exportation of industrial jobs overseas.

This economic policy leads Buchanan to a critique of capitalism’s sacred doctrines of free trade and to espouse the equally cherished view that government ought to intervene with tariffs and taxes to insolate American workers from change and economic dislocation. Buchanan is a strong opponent of U.S. involvement in NAFTA, GATT and the WTO.

An extension of this is Buchanan’s “America First” foreign policy that warns against “foreign entanglements” and cautions that the only time the United States should commit its troops in war is if the United States itself is directly threatened by a foreign army. Buchanan charges that despite their other differences, Republicans and Democrats have merged into one party – both supporting the establishment of an American empire that is overextended, at constant risk and unable to provide for the security of ordinary Americans at home.

A final extension of this highly nationalistic approach to politics is, what some have termed, Buchanan’s “tribalism.” The problem is that the tribe Buchanan seeks to “protect and preserve,” at time, appears to be a quite limited group. Buchanan is opposed to what he calls “excessive immigration”– but it appears that the immigrants about who he is concerned are the non-Europeans. He is also opposed to affirmative action, because it has displaced “whites.” And he is opposed to the control and power that foreigners and ethnic lobbies have developed over America’s economic and political institutions.

While Buchanan and his message failed to deny Bush the Republican nomination in 1992, it did expose fault lines in the support base that Bush needed to win reelection.

Much of Buchanan’s economic populist message was absorbed by the campaign of Ross Perot who ran in 1992 as an independent. The 19 percent of the vote won by Perot insured Bush’s defeat.

When Buchanan returned to run again in 1996, he initially appeared to retain his base of supporters. The Republican establishment’s support of Senator Bob Dole angered Buchanan, who felt that they had conspired to deny him the candidacy.

When confronted again this year with the same coalescing of the Party’s establishment around a candidate whom they feel can win back the White House–George W. Bush – Buchanan has responded by threatening to leave the Republican Party altogether and taking “his forces” to the Reform Party, which was founded by Ross Perot after the 1992 election.

It is here that the Buchanan saga becomes quite interesting. On the one hand, his threat to leave the Republican Party has elicited a divided response. The chair of the party, Jim Nicholson, and its front runner, George W. Bush, have urged Buchanan to stay. They fear that a Buchanan departure could take precious voters away from Republicans in 2000. Bush’s comment was “I need every vote I can get.” Nicholson termed Buchanan “a friend and a valued Republican.”

On the other hand, three other Republican candidates, Senator John McCain, Elizabeth Dole, and Steve Forbes have been sharply critical of Buchanan’s views and have sought to distance themselves and the Republican Party from him.
An interesting side note here has been the role of some Jewish organizations and some of the pro-Israel neo-conservatives who have led the anti-Buchanan charge wanting to see him not only out of the Republican Party, but out of politics altogether. According to one, Buchanan “ought to be purged from the political bloodstream of this country.”

This anger, of course, is due to the fact that when criticizing foreign entanglements and foreign lobbies, Buchanan devotes special attention to Israel.

(When I first met Pat Buchanan it was as a frequent guest on his 1970s and 1980s radio show. At the time he was very anti-Arab and strongly pro-Israel. It was his tribalism that created the change. When Reagan traveled to Germany in the mid-80s American Jewish groups attacked him. When, a short time later a confrontation developed between a Catholic convent at Auschwitz and the Jewish groups that wanted it removed, this was, for Buchanan, the last straw. They had attacked his “tribe” – and in response, he became an Israeli critic.)

Buchanan is now publicly weighing whether or not to enter the Reform Party. But here too, all is not rosy. While the economic populism of that party’s founder Perot is a perfect fit for Buchanan, his social conservatism and some of his nationalistic views are not.

And so a rupture of sorts has been created between the Perot wing of the party (which apparently favors a Buchanan bid) and others in the party, led by the newly elected Governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura, who opposes Buchanan.
For his part, Ventura is seeking to lure Donald Trump, famed billionaire, into the race–since Trump could spend $100 million of his won money to beat back a Buchanan candidacy.

There is, at this point, no certainty how this will resolve itself. Two things, however, are certain. Buchanan has insured that the Republican Party will have to redefine itself and he has guaranteed that the Reform Party will have a real intra-party contest for the 2000 nomination.

All of this works to make the overall 2000 elections a race to watch.

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