Posted on March 09, 1992 in Washington Watch

While President Bush continues to win in each of the presidential primaries, the margin of the victories is causing concern in the White House.

It is increasingly clear in many states that there is a solid 30% on the Republican side who will vote against the President, as shown in South Dakota, where 31% voted for “uncommitted” rather than cast a vote for Bush. At least half of this 30% represents a constituency which polls suggest Bush can no longer reach, while the rest are alienated and angry voters who want to send a one-time message.

In the two states where his opponent, Patrick Buchanan, actively campaigned, Buchanan has increased his protest vote to 37%. The increase reflects Democrats and Independents who “crossed over” to the Republican side to support Buchanan against Bush.

The president’s advisers are worried, not so much about November (as the Democrats have problems of their own—see below) but about the fate of the Republican coalition beyond 1992. This has caused many to take a closer look at who Buchanan is and what his challenge says about the Republican party.

When Buchanan, a political pundit by profession, first announced for the presidency his stated purpose was to challenge Bush from the right in the hope of convincing conservatives that Bush had strayed from the conservative principles articulated by former President Ronald Reagan.

Of course, conservatives never fully trusted Bush. They have not forgotten his 1980 campaign against Ronald Reagan (“voodoo economics”) or his voting record in Congress, which placed him firmly in the moderate, pragmatic wing of the Republican Party. Even in 1988, these conservatives preferred former Congressman Jack Kemp to Bush, Reagan’s chosen successor.

And so when Bush broke his promise in 1990 to hold the line on taxes, Buchanan saw an opportunity too inviting to resist. When the Gulf War drove Bush’s approval ratings up to 90%, Buchanan hesitated and only decided to enter the race as the president’s ratings fell.

Buchanan had two other, less obvious, reasons for running. First, he sought to pre-empt the anti-establishment candidacy of David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klansman and Nazi who hoped to make political hay with a growing number of “white” Americans who had fallen on hard economic times.

Despite his extreme past, Duke claimed to be a Republican and the damage he might inflict on the party was not to be underestimated. His attacks against big government and the status quo and his claims that black Americans were making gains at the expense of whites enabled him to capture 55% of the white vote in Louisiana in two statewide elections. He would no doubt find pockets of discontent across the nation, particularly in those areas where recession had put large numbers of people out of work.

(Buchanan’s candidacy at first generated sighs of relief among Republicans who preferred that he rather than Duke attract this “protest” vote.)

Second, Buchanan hoped to position himself as the “real” leader of the conservative movement and thus as a more serious presidential candidate in 1996, when the perceived weakness of Vice President Dan Quayle could leave the door open to challengers.

Buchanan is not just any conservative, however. His political philosophy poses a direct challenge to a conservative coalition that formed under the Reagan presidency. This coalition consisted of traditional conservatives who embraced the values of religion, family and free enterprise, but it also included neo-conservatives who had become disenchanted with the Democratic party and were won over by Reagan’s strident anti-communist and pro-Israel sentiments.

Buchanan’s isolationist, protectionist and nationalist instincts are not in harmony with the Reagan or neo-conservative agenda, but he nevertheless is winning 30%-plus in the primaries thanks to a solid base of discontented voters (including some traditional conservatives) who are willing to challenge the status quo under Bush.

Buchanan’s strong showing took many by surprise, including Republicans who initially wished Buchanan well in the hope he would derail Duke and spur Bush to return to the conservative fold. And Buchanan, having won over 30% in every primary, is beginning to believe he can derail Bush as well. I’ve seen it before. Candidates who experience a little success become intoxicated with the possibilities, perhaps because they have been introduced one too many times as “the next president of the United States” (as is standard practice on the campaign trail). In short, they start to believe their own campaign rhetoric.

Buchanan maintains he can deliver a “knock-out” punch to the Bush presidency and has gone so far as to call on Bush to resign! One result is that many conservatives and Republicans who only a few weeks ago were urging Republicans cast a tactical vote for Buchanan (just to send a message) now find they cannot rein him in.

It is important to note that as Buchanan continues he is coming under attack and scrutiny from two distinct groups. The neo- conservatives, while displeased with President Bush’s hard-line on Israel are even more disturbed by Buchanan’s “Israel bashing.” They simply do not want Buchanan designated as leader of the conservative movement. Neo-conservative columnists and politicians have in recent weeks taken to the airways in an all out assault on Buchanan’s views on Israel.

At the same the press and the White House have challenged Buchanan’s views on minorities (his claim to speak on behalf of “Euro-Americans” and his call to “take American back”—from whom?), his attitudes toward women (they are less qualified and less competitive than men) and foreigners (anti-immigration remarks about “Zulus” coming to the United States).

Tragically these views, when attacked, drew attention to them and even support from the very voters Buchanan is reaching. There is no doubt that Buchanan has found his niche. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater calls him “the town bully” and accuses him of being “out to destroy Bush and the Republican Party.” While it is unlikely he will stop Bush from being nominated, it is less clear what he will do to the always fragile Republican coalition.


The Democrats

Last week, seven Democratic primaries and caucuses brought few surprises. These elections served to solidify the patterns that had been developing in the earlier weeks of the campaign.

In Georgia, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton finally won his first primary. That the southern governor won in a southern state was expected, although his margin of victory was larger that was expected—especially after being blasted all week by military veterans over his failure to serve in Vietnam. Clinton received 57% of the vote. His nearest challenger got only 24%.

Clinton supporters cannot assume, however, that the “draft dodging” and “womanizing” issues have now been put to rest. Forty two percent of all voters in a recent poll say that they still have “serious doubts” about his character. And 61% of all Democrats say they are unhappy with all the candidates and want someone else to enter the race.

Former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas won in Maryland and Washington State with polls showing that while he is not a regional candidate his candidacy is especially favored by well off, well educated liberal white voters. He does not do well with more traditional Democratic voters.

Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, the traditional Democrat, as expected, won the caucuses in Minnesota and Idaho. But he cannot read too much into those victories. Only 4% of all voters go to these caucuses and therefore they can be won by anyone who has strong and organized “special interest” backing, such as Harkin, who has the support of organized labor.

While this is of help to Harkin in some states, it hurts with the larger voting public who identify Harkin as the epitome of what has been traditionally been wrong with the Democratic party—its pandering to special interest groups. National polls show Harkin getting the support of only 3% of all Democrats.

The biggest and most interesting surprise of the week was the performance of former California Gov. Jerry Brown, who won in Colorado and finished second in Washington State. It thus appears that his “protest” message on the Democratic side—against the corrupting influence of “big” money—and his highly unorthodox campaign style has earned him a faithful following.

In fact, Brown has little organization and almost no money with which to buy television advertising. Even so, his unique style has attracted large crowds and significant media attention. If the coverage continues, and it looks as if it will, he will continue to be a factor in the 1992 race.

In keeping with his unorthodox style for a Democrat, Brown has been the only Democratic candidate to oppose Israel’s loan guarantee request (to a cheering audience in Maine) and to support President Bush’s handling of the Middle East peace process (during a television debate this past week in Colorado).

On the other hand, the week proved to be a great disappointment for Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey. His 4th and 5th place finishes in all seven states prompted him to drop out of the race.

Many Democrats still think that, on paper, Kerrey was the most electable of the candidates. But his inability to project a consistent image and his inability to raise money doomed his candidacy.

It is important to understand that U.S. presidential politics is a multi-million dollar proposition. To run in 50 states requires private planes to fly candidates and staff and press to two or three states a day. It also requires enormous amounts of money for paid advertising as candidates try to shape their message and image, undermine the appeal of their opponents, and get their own supporters out to vote.

To keep the flow of money coming in, candidate must do reasonably well in the primaries each week. There is, therefore, a relationship between money and votes. The more money you raise, the more voters you can win. The more votes you win, the more money you can raise. It is precisely this fact that forced Bob Kerrey to withdraw. His poor showing caused the money to dry up.

At the same time, it is significant that Brown, with no plane, no staff and no advertising, has managed to win—mainly because he is exciting crowds, campaigning against big money in politics and getting free media attention. Thus is Brown defying the “rules” of contemporary American politics, and doing quite well in the process.

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