The Clash of 96
The Wanderer, June 8, 1995; Washington
while it appeared there were two serious Republican presidential
candidates. Bob Dole and Phil Gramm, with Lamar Alexander and maybe Pete Wilson
trailing well behind but not out of the running. That was how the media portrayed
the situation, anyway. Whats wrong with this picture?
The media analysis was conventional and
mechanical, and this is a year when chemistry will count. Bob Dole has obvious
advantages. Hes familiar, safe, and likably gruff, with a lot of
old-fashioned support. But nobody really loves him, by which I mean he
wouldnt be anyones first choice. He still has to be rated the
front-runner, but like George Bush in 1992, he commands no deep loyalty and is
highly vulnerable to an upset. And the country is hungry for something he can
neither offer nor imagine. He is too imbedded in the old politics we are all tired
Phil Gramm is on the skids. He knows the country
wants to move rightward, and he is happy to oblige. His campaign began as a big
production with lots of rich backers and professional cheerleaders. But nobody
loves him either, and nearly everyone distrusts him. He sent out a broad wink to
the liberal media that though hes nominally pro-life, he doesnt
intend to do anything about abortion as president. Unfortunately for him, the
Christian right intercepted this signal, and he tried too late to recover by
overstating his opposition to abortion. It didnt help him that hed
invested $7,500 in a soft-porn movie years ago. In fact it was many years ago
1974 and he might have said he was sorry and let it go at that, but
he fogged the issue up in such a way that the incident no longer seemed remote: it
seemed all too much in character somehow. The man radiates something
unpleasant; insincerity is part of the odor.
Lamar Alexander has raised a lot of money too.
Hes learned to play a repertoire of conservative themes lately, and he has a
good line of patter. But hes pro-abortion, much as he tries to mute it now,
and he cant get the Republican nomination without driving the core of the
party away. The same is true of Pete Wilson. Both men might have had a chance in
1976. Not now.
The remarkable thing about this field is that none
of the media-anointed Big Four appeals strongly to conservatives at a time when
the nations mood is more conservative than ever. But now a fifth candidate
is suddenly getting media attention. Newsweek and The New
York Times, among others, have realized that Pat Buchanan is serious.
Buchanan has cleaned Gramms clock in a
few informal head-to-head contests. He is a terrific debater who can make his
points in a low-key, civil, but powerful manner, as witness his recent performance
on Meet the Press. Pro-lifers, gun owners, tax-weary voters,
rank-and-file conservatives, and Perotistas trust him; his message has never
varied, even under fierce pressure. This allows him to score heavily off Dole and
Gramm, whose long voting records contradict their campaign speeches and expose
them as leap-year conservatives.
Ive always liked and admired Pat, but at
first I doubted that he could make a strong running this year. I assumed that
hed shot his wad in 1992 and this years monied competition would
engulf him. But he has become a brilliant campaigner with a real vision (even
though I dont share all of it) and he is aggressively shaping the terms of
debate in such a way as to embarrass his rivals. Dole may be far ahead now, but if
Gramm falls away and Buchanan is the only true pro-life conservative, Dole will be
Unlike Dole, Buchanan understands what is
happening in politics. In fact, he has understood it even better than the smarter
people in Republican and conservative circles. The end of the Cold War has changed
everything. Americans are worried about their own country now; they dont
want needless foreign adventures and entanglements when they have a strong
sense that the United States is going to hell in many senses, not all of them
figurative. Many if not most are convinced that the federal government has
aggravated and even created the conditions they hate.
Even Reaganism is passé. The Catholics and
evangelical Protestants who came into the Republican Party to vote for Reagan are
ready to walk out again; some already have. Buchanan understands that the party
must hold these people and bring in the Perot voters. Its a fluid historical
moment, and it calls for realignment.
But a realignment in the party system would also
mean a realignment within the Republican Party. The Bush Republicans
would be demoted; the internationalists and interventionists would have to be
abandoned. The old conservatives and especially the neoconservatives would
naturally dislike the new populist, nationalist, isolationist recruits who would
threaten to displace them and take the party in a different direction. For this
reason, the GOPs old guard will try to stop Buchanan even if it means
re-electing Bill Clinton, just as the Rockefeller wing threw its support to Lyndon
Johnson in 1964 in order to stop the Goldwater movement.
At this point its hard to forsee the
outcome. A new third party? Buchanan himself has mentioned the possibility. If
the Republican ticket dosent include him or someone equally acceptable to
heartland conservatives, the demand will be there. And as I keep saying, Howard
Phillipss U.S. Taxpayers Party could serve the country splendidly, if
only by keeping the vital principles politically alive and robbing a moderate-ruled
Republican Party of its margin of victory.
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