Pat Buchanan, the man who urged Ronald Reagan to visit the Nazi cemetery at Bitburg, is no stranger to charges of anti-Semitism. And you can forget about trying to embarrass this lifelong defender of Gen. Francisco Franco by calling him a fascist. So don’t expect the brouhaha over Buchanan’s new book, A Republic, Not an Empire–which suggests that instead of making war on Hitler’s Germany Franklin D. Roosevelt ought to have encouraged the Nazis to point their weaponry east toward Stalin’s Soviet Union and the overwhelming majority of world Jewry–to divert him from the 2000 presidential campaign trail. If anything, the Republican-turning-Reformer welcomes the prospect that the condemnations will up sales of his book.
Ever since that fateful day eight years ago when it first occurred to Buchanan that he could move up from sycophant to a lead role in the Oval Office follies, the former Crossfire commentator has dreamed of storming the White House as commander in chief of a Buchanan Brigade made up of people who look and think pretty much as he does. The problem is that while the GOP’s big tent makes ample room for reactionaries, there have never been enough Pat clones under the canvas. In dozens of Republican presidential primary contests, the best showing ever posted by the cultural warrior from McLean was the 37 percent he polled in his 1992 New Hampshire face-off with George Bush.
Now that his third attempt to win the GOP nod has pretty much collapsed, Buchanan has been plucked from the abyss of Harold Stassen status by 1996 Reform Party vice presidential candidate Pat Choate and, in a behind-the-curtain role, Ross Perot. Earlier this year, the Texas billionaire and two-time presidential candidate lost control of the Reform Party’s national apparatus–which is little more than a shell waiting to be moved around the political game board–to allies of the one Reformer who has actually won an important election, Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura. In the absence of a Ventura presidential candidacy–the last best prospect for stalling the Buchanan boomlet–Perot and his minions think they might be able to reclaim “their” party by helping Buchanan become its 2000 nominee. Perot would be wise to consult his old nemesis, George Bush, about the risks involved with giving quarter to Buchanan–the latter’s 1992 GOP convention speech, with its “take back our country” rhetoric, was a lead weight on the GOP campaign that year.
Then again, the Bushes themselves seem to have forgotten the lessons of 1992. George W. Bush, the front-runner for the 2000 Republican nomination, is hustling to keep Buchanan in the tent, declaring, “I’m going to need every vote I can get among Republicans to win the election.” For all his talk of “compassionate conservatism,” young Bush has shown in his response to the Buchanan imbroglio that he is his father’s son–a mainstream Republican who lives in constant fear of slippage on the right.
Among the Republican contenders, Senator John McCain’s willingness to read Pat out of the party marks him, once again, as the gutsiest of the GOP candidates–and the most prescient. For all the talk about how a Buchanan candidacy on the Reform line could hurt Bush in a November contest with Al Gore or Bill Bradley, there is reason to believe Buchanan’s contention that his greater appeal may lie with disenchanted Democrats. Even now, Pew Research Center polling suggests that Buchanan would tear at the bases of both parties. While a Buchanan candidacy on the Reform ticket would cut Bush’s support from 54 to 49 percent, Gore’s would dip from 39 to 35 percent.
As early as the spring of 1996, Buchanan was claiming he might do better as a Democratic primary candidate in industrial states like Ohio, Illinois and Indiana, where the sentiments of working-class Democrats parallel his fervent opposition to NAFTA, GATT and corporate hegemony. “A lot of my people don’t vote in Republican primaries,” Buchanan allowed during a campaign swing through Toledo that year.
If Buchanan wins the Reform Party’s nod and its $12.6 million in federal election funds, he’ll look for openings. Should Bush pick a solidly antiabortion running mate, limiting Buchanan’s appeal among Christian conservatives, the populist will tailor his appeal to blue-collar Democrats and particularly union members who are not as excited about Gore or Bradley as are their leaders.
If Democrats fail to nominate a ticket that addresses the concerns of its core constituencies about globalization of the economy, deindustrialization of urban centers, the collapse of family farming in the heartland and politics stacked against working families, Buchanan may well find his opening–just as George Wallace’s reactionary populism pried hundreds of thousands of working-class, white-ethnic voters in New Jersey, Ohio and other key Northern states away from Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Buchanan believes his reformulated “America First” ideology will appeal to those same voters–and their children–in 2000. While some pundits argue that the sort of voter who would back Buchanan left the Democratic orbit long ago, candidates like Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone, Ohio’s Dennis Kucinich and Illinois’s Lane Evans have proven again and again that a progressive economic populism brings them back within the fold. Democrats and progressives must understand something that Republicans and Reformers have already realized: If there is a void in American politics, Buchanan will move to fill it. And, as his new book suggests, Pat learned his moves from the worst players in American–and global–history.