Will Buchanan Be the Jackson of the Right? GOP Prays Answer Is 'No'

February 18, 1996|Susan Estrich | Susan Estrich, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a law professor at USC. She served as campaign manager for Michael S. Dukakis in 1988

Patrick J. Buchanan will not be the Republican nominee for president, but he will be the making or breaking of him. The GOP nominee will define himself for the rest of the country on central issues of values and economics by his dealings with Buchanan and his supporters--just as Democratic nominees throughout the '80s defined themselves as liberals by their dealings with Jesse Jackson.

The old joke in Democratic circles used to be that the challenge of Iowa was to survive without moving so far to the left that you could never find the center again. The challenge for the Republicans has been just the opposite. This year, all the front-runners failed.

In Iowa, the religious right sank Steve Forbes and launched Buchanan. In New Hampshire, Buchanan is dominating the debate. Is the Republican Party now the party of protectionism? Is Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, in bashing corporate America, sounding more like Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) than Ronald Reagan? The GOP's discovery of the squeezed middle class is long overdue, but Buchanan's answers won't win a majority. Being perceived as anti-business has traditionally hurt Democrats. Can it be that Republicans are taking a page from a losing playbook?

In Buchanan, Republicans have found the most polarizing candidate in the race. Like Jackson, he attracts ideologues, and puts moderates off. He energizes the base at the expense of the swing voters. His goal is to redefine the party, not to be a good soldier.

Buchanan is the living symbol of the disastrous 1992 Republican convention, a baggage-laden (the anti-Semitism stories will be back, along with the Mercedes ads from the '92 campaign) expert in the politics of confrontation. Whoever the GOP nominates, Democrats everywhere will be running against Buchanan and House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Buchanan has staying power. Unlike professional politicians, media personalities who run for president owe no duties of loyalty to the party. And he's not financially dependent on traditional, big donors: Buchanan gets his money mostly from small donors. He needs less of it precisely because he is a professional communicator: No one is better at talk radio, which you don't have to buy.

Buchanan is pushing hard on an economic agenda squarely at odds with virtually everything the modern Republican Party has succeeded in winning on. He is against free trade, in favor of protectionism, against U.S. leadership in foreign affairs and unhesitant in taking on corporate America. His answers to working people sound more like traditional Democratic ideas than do most Democrats--including the president these days.

At the same time, he is not taking a single step back from his social agenda. Last year, he told delegates to the Christian Coalition convention: "Let me tell you solemnly where I stand. I will keep this party pro-life. I will choose a pro-life vice president. I will appoint pro-life justices who will overturn Roe vs. Wade. I will make my presidency a bully pulpit for the right to life as long as I'm in that office." In Des Moines, before the caucus, he promised to continue the attack he began at the 1992 convention. "In 1992, in Houston, I talked about the cultural war going on for the soul of America," Buchanan told those attending an anti-gay rally. "And that war is still going on. We cannot worship the false god of gay rights. To put that kind of relationship on the same level as marriage is a moral lie." It is red meat for his supporters--and a red flag for moderates, who will ultimately decide the general election.

Plainly, Buchanan is tapping a chord of frustration in middle-class Americans who see wages lagging, job security disappearing and values declining. That's why he's being imitated by his opponents, even as they attack some of his specific positions. It's a tricky dance for Republicans, and it's particularly tricky on explosive issues such as gay rights and abortion--issues most GOP strategists would like to see disappear. But they never will as long as Buchanan is in the race, or the convention hall. If you're a Republican, you can't win without the religious right; but abortion is also about the best issue to unite the rest of the country against you. Just as race is, on the Democratic side.

So far, the front-runners are pandering. In New Hampshire, they've turned on corporate America. In Iowa, they turned on gay Americans. On the Saturday night before the caucuses, Dole, Lamar Alexander and even Forbes all lent support to the Christian Coalition-sponsored anti-gay rally attended by Buchanan. The purpose of that Des Moines conclave was to oppose same-sex marriages, and, in the words of organizers, to "send this evil lifestyle back to Satan where it came from."

"I fully support the position taken in the resolution," Dole wrote to conference organizers. "In fact, the resolution does not go far enough." This may come back to haunt him.

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