There is plenty of bad news about Patrick J. Buchanan’s campaign for the Republican nomination for President in 1992, but the good news is that it has gone so badly with the voters.
This, of course, is not how that campaign has generally been seen. Up until the results of the Michigan and Illinois primaries on March 17, Buchanan was represented almost everywhere as a very successful protest candidate. Here, for example, is how Time magazine summed it all up:
Buchanan has already bloodied Bush in a political cross fire that has preoccupied the Republican party and may help topple the President in November. Just three months ago, Buchanan was an acerbic television commentator; now, thanks to tough economic times and Bush’s bumbling ways, Buchanan holds hostage many of the angry “swing” voters who are likely to pick the next President.
To be sure, this kind of fevered assessment gave way to a more sober appraisal after Super Tuesday (March 10), when Buchanan did much less well than expected, and especially after the Michigan and Illinois primaries a week later. Having once been given a chance to win in Michigan, Buchanan failed to get more than 25 percent of the vote there, and he did even worse (22 percent) in Illinois. Nevertheless, he was still being widely credited (again in the words of Time) with having “propelled himself . . . into the first tier of GOP hopefuls for 1996.”
Yet a careful look at the primary results reveals that Buchanan actually performed poorly even when he was thought to have done well. In New Hampshire, where he campaigned long and hard, and where economic conditions and such other factors as the support of an important local paper presented him with an almost ideal opportunity, he drew 37 percent of the vote. Then in Georgia, where he also put out a great effort, he nearly matched that figure, with 36 percent. At first glance these results seem impressive, especially for a political novice challenging the President of the United States within his own party. But on closer examination the early primaries provide a measure not of Buchanan’s strength but of Bush’s weakness. Thus, on the same day that Buchanan’s strenuous campaign in Georgia was being rewarded with a 36-percent vote, he got about 30 percent in Maryland, where he had not campaigned at all. And in South Dakota, where Buchanan was not even on the ballot, the same 30 percent of the Republican vote went to an uncommitted slate.
What all this suggests is that anyone—or no one—running against Bush would have been assured of that 30 percent. This inference is borne out by the exit polls, which showed that most of the people who voted for Buchanan did so because they wanted to “send a message” of dissatisfaction to Bush, not because they were for Buchanan himself.
If, then, Buchanan began with an assured anti-Bush base of 30 percent, it follows that the best he managed to do in his own right was to jack it up by six or seven points. Worse yet from his point of view, in many states besides Michigan and Illinois (Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Connecticut, Kansas, and Wisconsin), he went below the anti-Bush base, scoring as it were in negative numbers.
In short, we are entitled to conclude that Buchanan’s appeal to Republican voters in general is very strictly limited. But what about his appeal to conservatives? It is here that the news gets bad—not perhaps as bad as it seemed before March 17, but bad enough to create a number of serious problems. And thereby hangs a tale.
When word first began circulating last year that Buchanan was planning to run, it seemed reasonable to suppose that he would have trouble in picking up support from his fellow conservatives. Once upon a time, he had been much admired by conservatives of all stripes for the vigor and pungency with which he usually expressed the conservative consensus of the Reagan era. But more recently, with the end of the cold war and the departure of Ronald Reagan from the scene, he had been veering off in an entirely different direction in his thinking about international affairs. The most blatant manifestation of this change was his opposition to the Gulf War. Yet while the position he took on this issue surprised many people who still thought of him as the pugnacious hawk he had always been in the fight against Communism, it had already been foreshadowed by the loudly announced conversion to isolationism with which he had celebrated the victorious conclusion of that fight.
It was not, moreover, some vague or general brand of isolationism that this most ferocious of cold warriors had decided to embrace; it was a particular strain with a name and a history of its own: America First.
The purpose of the original America First movement, founded in 1940, was in the short run to oppose American aid to the nations of Europe threatened by Nazi Germany and in the longer run to keep the United States from going to war against Hitler. Although the movement attracted a number of prominent left-wing isolationists (among them the socialist leader Norman Thomas and the historian Charles A. Beard), its main support came from the Right and included the notorious anti-Semitic demagogue Father Charles Coughlin. But America First’s most famous spokesman by far was the great aviation hero Charles Lindbergh.
“In September 1941,” writes the historian Alonzo L. Hamby of Ohio University in the American Enterprise, “Lindbergh made a speech that listed Jews, the British, and the Roosevelt administration as the three forces propelling the country toward war.” In doing so, furthermore, Lindbergh “made no reference to other ethnic groups (Polish-Americans, for example) who also favored war with Germany, and [he] seemed to assume that Jewish-Americans were in some sense or another aliens.”
Now what was most extraordinary about Buchanan’s insistence on using the name of the old America First movement was his willingness—or was it eagerness?—to embrace these unsavory aspects of its history as well. When Governor L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, in search of a jazzy slogan for his own abortive campaign for the Democratic nomination, also and independently hit upon the term America First, he was clearly unaware of or had forgotten about these associations, and he dropped it as soon as they were called to his attention. Buchanan, by contrast, knew exactly what he was doing and even went out of his way to pluck on the original strings.
Indeed, he might almost have been consciously echoing Lindbergh when he announced on one of his television shows that the Israelis and the American Jews were the only forces pushing the Bush administration toward war in the Persian Gulf. Again like Lindbergh (who at least had the excuse of knowing that the country was split down the middle on getting into another European war), Buchanan ignored all the other groups, adding up to a large majority of the population, who backed Bush’s policy; and yet again like Lindbergh, Buchanan insinuated that American Jews (Israel’s “amen corner”) were not full-fledged Americans. (As if to belie his apologists, who insisted that he had not meant to say what he seemed to be saying, he returned to the same theme during his campaign when he responded to a group of Jewish protesters by declaring that “This is a rally of Americans, by Americans, and for the good old U.S.A.”)
Instead, then, of trying to distance himself from the anti-Semitic associations of the old America First movement, Buchanan moved with all due deliberation in the opposite direction. Even in the absence of all the other indications of anti-Semitism which Buchanan’s critics have been able to cite,1 this alone would have been enough to convict; and it certainly seemed likely to cost him support not only among the neoconservatives (many of whom were Jewish, and all of whom were pro-Israel) but also among such important Old-Right magazines as National Review and such New-Right institutions as the Heritage Foundation. After all, National Review had a long history of efforts to purge the conservative movement of the anti-Semitic sentiments to which it had once been hospitable, and Heritage, beyond being absolutely free of any anti-Semitic taint, was also strongly pro-Israel. Much the same was true of most other leading conservative groups and institutions.
Yet even if the complicating factors of anti-Semitism and hostility to Israel had not been present, Buchanan’s isolationism would have provided sufficient reason for these conservative groups, all of which had supported the Gulf War and none of which had renounced interventionism, to oppose his candidacy. And even if they were not deterred by his conversion to isolationism, they would surely be put off by his correlative conversion to protectionism (which, being the economic face of isolationism, had also formed part of the program of the original America Firsters).
On the other hand, there were some conservatives of whose backing Buchanan could be sure. There were his admirers at Human Events, a magazine in whose eyes he could say or do no wrong. There were the columnists Evans and Novak, who had sided with him on the Gulf War and were even more hostile to Israel than he was. And there were the so-called paleoconservatives, a group of enrage academics whose isolationist fervor predated his own and was if anything more extreme. The paleos were also fanatical nativists to whom immigration from anywhere except Western Europe (or perhaps only England) represented the greatest of all threats to the health and integrity of American society—a view Buchanan had himself increasingly come to embrace in recent years.
In the event, Buchanan did get the enthusiastic support of these elements of the conservative movement. Conversely, he provoked as much opposition from the neoconservatives as was predicted. But things did not go quite as expected among other conservatives who disagreed with his current political ideas. The most visible case in point was the flagship publication of American conservatism itself, National Review.
Under John O’Sullivan, who had succeeded William F. Buckley, Jr. as its editor, National Review (like Buckley himself) had on the whole remained true to the Reaganite faith. In fact, even before Buchanan announced his candidacy, the magazine had quietly decided to back an insurgency against Bush in 1992 on the ground that the President had betrayed Reaganite principles first in raising taxes and then by signing a civil-rights bill that was bound to promote quotas.
Obviously National Review‘s preferred vehicle for such an insurgency was a genuine Reaganite like the present Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Jack Kemp, or the former Secretary of Education, William J. Bennett. Neither man, however, was willing to run. Pat Buchanan, who was willing to run, claimed to be Reagan’s heir but in his own way he had become at least as much an apostate as George Bush. Faced with this dilemma, O’Sullivan at first entertained the hope that if Buchanan could do well enough in New Hampshire, he might drive Bush to resign, just as Eugene McCarthy had done to Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Then, just as in 1968 Robert Kennedy had taken this new situation as a license to enter the race, so would Kemp or Bennett or some other Reaganite exploit the opening created by Buchanan to throw his hat into the ring.
On the basis of this fantasy, National Review was prepared to endorse Buchanan in spite of his isolationism, in spite of his protectionism, and in spite of his anti-Semitism—although O’Sullivan, while acknowledging that Buchanan was an isolationist and a protectionist, persistently denied that he was an anti-Semite. Unhappily for O’Sullivan, at that very moment Buckley was just completing a long essay for National Review in which he found it “impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he did and said during the period [of the Gulf crisis] amounted to anti-Semitism. . . .” But not even Buckley could convince O’Sullivan. On the contrary, O’Sullivan stuck so stubbornly to his guns that he convinced Buckley to join him in giving “tactical” support to Buchanan in New Hampshire.
So great was O’Sullivan’s determination to endorse Buchanan in the early primaries that it survived the discrediting of his first rationalization and easily latched on to a second. Thus, no sooner had it become clear that Buchanan could not do unto Bush what Eugene McCarthy had done unto Lyndon Johnson than National Review decided that its purpose in endorsing Buchanan was not to drive Bush out but to drive him to the Right by sending him a message.
Never mind that the message being sent by this particular messenger was not the one National Review presumably wanted to send: somehow the right (in both senses of the word) message would get through. And sure enough, when Bush responded to Buchanan’s attacks on him by forcing John Frohnmayer out as head of the National Endowment for the Arts and by apologizing for having broken his pledge not to raise taxes, National Review saw in these paltry concessions to the Right a sign that its “objectives in giving Pat Buchanan a qualified endorsement in the early primaries have been achieved to a degree far greater than we could have expected.”
Nor was National Review alone among Reaganite conservatives in failing to oppose Buchanan with the forthrightness his apostasies—not to mention his anti-Semitism—might have been expected to demand of them. In private, many such conservatives had long been expressing their dismay over Buchanan’s desertion of Reaganite principles; and a few who had known him for years had no hesitation in acknowledging that (for reasons they could not fathom) he had become anti-Semitic. In public, however, the statements of opposition from some leaders of conservative organizations within the Reaganite camp tended to be weak and ambiguous, rather like those of liberal Democrats talking about Jesse Jackson in 1988.
One reason these Reaganite conservatives (Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, for example) were so inhibited in their criticisms of Buchanan was that they and their constituents had come to loathe George Bush and were in no mood to lend him aid and comfort by undermining his only challenger from the Right. Another reason was that Buchanan was apparently drawing a good deal of support from the conservative grass roots, and especially from the young activists of the movement. Consequently, as David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU), told the Wall Street Journal, “a lot of conservatives” were afraid to “stand up and speak out against Pat.” (Was this why the evangelist Jerry Falwell, who had already decided to endorse Bush in 1992, later said that he would be “front-row center for Buchanan in 1996”?)2
But if there was indeed bad news about the Buchanan candidacy among conservatives, there was also some good news emanating from the same quarter.
Item: Not every leader of every conservative organization was intimidated by pressure from below. For example, the ACU’s David Keene, while withholding support for Bush, opposed Buchanan from the outset for all the right reasons, and courageously held firm even after his board had voted to back Buchanan by a very large majority.
Item: Outside the organization world, a formidable collection of conservative political leaders, including William Bennett, Jack Kemp, Senator Phil Gramm, and Congressmen Vin Weber and Newt Gingrich, denounced Buchanan and made it their business to explain why—as an isolationist, a protectionist, a nativist—he had no claim to the Reaganite mantle. And Bennett for one, though denying that Buchanan was “personally” anti-Semitic, declared that he was “practicing political anti-Semitism.”
Item: Among mass-circulation periodicals, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, perhaps the most influential exponent of Reaganite principles in the country, as well as its editor, Robert L. Bartley, made their opposition to Buchanan abundantly clear. So, in no uncertain terms, did Malcolm S. Forbes, Jr., editor-in-chief of Forbes, America’s most widely read business magazine.
Item: In a letter to National Review, thirteen eminent conservative intellectuals—all non-Jewish3—expressed their dismay at the magazine’s tactical endorsement of Buchanan, pointing out that “it was not morally consistent” for the editors to recommend voting for a candidate whom Buckley had charged with anti-Semitism. Then, when O’Sullivan reiterated his denial that Buchanan was an anti-Semite, Richard John Neuhaus, one of the signatories of the letter, published an editorial in his own magazine, First Things, which concluded with the following sharp retort:
In recent decades, the line against anti-Semitism has been held by the conservative movement, by neoconservatives, by the Christian New Right, and by National Review under the leadership of William F. Buckley, Jr. That line of defense is now weakened by the attack of the Randolphites [a paleoconservative group in the Buchanan camp]—an attack inadvertently aided by the inept response of National Review to their candidate.4
Item: In addition to First Things, another important conservative journal of opinion, the American Spectator, came out strongly—and with no waffling on the issue of anti-Semitism—against Buchanan.
Despite these reassuring signs, however, the Buchanan candidacy, on balance and taken for all in all, has already done great harm. A “conservative crackup,” as R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. of the American Spectator was the first to call it, no doubt became inevitable once the end of the cold war had eliminated the great purpose that, more than any other factor, had brought so many disparate groups together into a working coalition. But there was nothing inevitable about the form this crackup would take. Indeed, if not for Buchanan’s decision to throw in his lot with one of the darker strains of American conservatism and then to lift that tradition out of the obscurity to which Ronald Reagan had consigned it, things might have turned out very differently.
There might, for example, have been the kind of civil debate among the various schools of conservative thought for which John O’Sullivan now irenically pines. But what O’Sullivan forgets is that Pat Buchanan and his amen corner set out to make such a debate impossible. For their main objective has always been to recapture the conservative movement from those who in their view have stolen and corrupted it. Or as Buchanan once put it when he was still just a columnist: “Before true conservatives can ever take back the country, they are first going to have to take back their movement.”
First and foremost among the elements from whom the movement has to be taken back are the neoconservatives, of whom Buchanan wrote long before he became a candidate: “Like the fleas who conclude they are steering the dog, their relationship to the [conservative] movement has always been parasitical.” Yet it is not only these “eleventh-hour arrivals in the Reagan coalition,” these “JFK-LBJ Democrats disillusioned with the Great Society they helped erect,” these “ideological vagrants [we brought] in off the street,” on whom Buchanan and his claque have declared war. Even Buckley and National Review themselves have come under assault. Here, as an instance, is Murray Rothbard, president of the John Randolph Club, and one of Buchanan’s most fervent champions:
National Review is no longer the monopoly power center on the Right. . . . The original Right and all its heresies is back! In fact, Bill Buckley is the Mikhail Gorbachev of the conservative movement. . . . For Pat Buchanan’s race for the presidency has changed the face of the right wing. . . . He has created a new radical, or Hard Right, very much like the original Right before National Review. . . . The right wing shall henceforth only be defined in relation to the Buchananite movement. That movement, neither kind nor gentle, now sets the agenda, and sets the terms of the debate.
Is Rothbard right? In the immediate aftermath of New Hampshire, it looked as though he might be. But with the gradual emergence of a strong conservative resistance to Buchanan, the announcement of his victory in the struggle over who will lead and define American conservatism now seems a bit premature.
Yet it is also true that by seizing the opportunity to launch a conservative insurgency against George Bush when none of his Reaganite rivals was willing to step in, Buchanan at one stroke catapulted himself into the forefront. As Burton Yale Pines of the Heritage Foundation told the Washington Post:
I don’t think that Jack Kemp or Bill Bennett or [former Delaware Governor] Pete du Pont ever imagined there would be a conservative leader ahead of them. Suddenly here’s Pat Buchanan who has visibility, who has networks in key states, who has money sources in key states. . . . Every day that [Buchanan is] in the race, he makes gains among conservatives and he emerges as the titular leader of the conservative movement.
Unlike many of his colleagues at Heritage, Pines has been distressingly indulgent toward Buchanan. But if his assessment is correct, and if Buchanan succeeds in actually becoming the leader of the conservative movement, disaster will follow. Having been carried triumphantly into the mainstream by Ronald Reagan, the conservative movement will have been dragged back into a marginal sectarian status with very little appeal to anyone outside its own fever swamps.
But it is important to recognize that such a development would not be a disaster for conservatism alone; it would be a calamity for the whole country—as destructive in its way as the obverse radicalization of liberalism turned out to be in the late 60’s. The surrender then of so many liberals to the perspective of the New Left resulted in the corruption of a healthy political tradition. It also facilitated the entry into the political mainstream of formerly marginal ideas and attitudes which have contributed mightily to the undermining of the family, the spread of a dangerous sexual licentiousness, the slow deterioration of our educational system, and the epidemic of drugs and violent street crime. If the “new radical or Hard Right” coalition forming behind Buchanan were to achieve a comparable success, American conservatism would undergo a comparable process of corruption—a process that would release into the political air the viruses of xenophobia and nativism, and the derivative diseases of anti-Semitism and old-fashioned racism, to which the movement had seemed for a time to have acquired immunity.
Which is why the bad news about the Buchanan candidacy is not bad news just for conservatives, and why the fight now beginning for the soul of the conservative movement matters so much for everyone else as well.
1 See “Patrick J. Buchanan and the Jews,” by Joshua Muravchik in the January 1991 COMMENTARY for a meticulous analysis of the evidence. Incidentally, Buchanan's generally soft attitude toward Hitler's Germany (as reflected in his tender solicitude for Nazi war criminals and his flirtation with Holocaust revisionism, both amply documented by Muravchik) is also reminiscent of Lindbergh. Though no more an actual Nazi sympathizer than Buchanan, Lindbergh was an admirer of Germany; and, writes Hamby, though “he deplored Nazi persecution of the Jews,” he did so “in the manner of an advocate who prefers to downplay facts that damage his case [and] he was more prone to call it stupid than evil.” But Lindbergh, unlike Buchanan, was writing before Nazi persecution of the Jews had reached the genocidal level it would eventually attain.
2 Fred Barnes of the New Republic has reported that in a poll taken of his television audience by Pat Robertson, Falwell's fellow evangelist (and fellow Bush supporter), Buchanan beat the President 71-29. This does not necessarily mean, however, that the Christian Right is moving away from its fervent support of Israel. At a recent conference, there were people wearing “Buchanan for President” buttons on one lapel and “Hands Off Israel” buttons on the other.
3 They were, in alphabetical order: Peter L. Berger, Walter Berns, Robert H. Bork, Terry Eastland, Patrick Glynn, Michael Joyce, Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, James Nuechterlein, Thomas L. Pangle, R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., and George Weigel.
4 In singling out O'Sullivan for this criticism, Neuhaus was being too kind to Buckley. For after first doing himself honor by unambiguously calling Buchanan's anti-Semitic effusions by their proper name, Buckley, as noted above, now joined O'Sullivan in giving Buchanan “tactical” support—thereby inescapably suggesting that anti-Semitism was not in itself enough to disqualify a political candidate. To make matters worse, in his own reply to the protest letter from the thirteen conservatives, Buckley compounded both intellectual and moral confusion by claiming that in his original essay he had “communicated [his] own private guess that Buchanan is not anti-Semitic.” Well, he had certainly not communicated this “guess” to the thirteen, or—offering my own private guess—to most other readers of his essay. The best one can say about this evasive action is that it brought Buckley's position into line with O'Sullivan's statement that “we would not have endorsed Mr. Buchanan if we had believed him to be anti-Semitic.”