Buchanan Brings Fears of Schism to the GOP Tent
Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, Patrick J. Buchanan’s rapidly rising presidential candidacy now threatens to sharply polarize the Republican Party--perhaps creating a deep and enduring schism.
“I could imagine Buchanan costing Republicans the presidency,” said John Petrocik, a political scientist at UCLA and occasional consultant to GOP campaigns. “He stokes up issues that divide Republicans internally and that are pretty easily caricatured.”
Even if Buchanan wins here--and recent polls have shown him in a close race with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole--most members of the Republican establishment will continue to discount his chances of gaining the nomination and distance themselves from his belligerent personality and ideas.
In particular, the GOP hierarchy is outraged and threatened by Buchanan’s nationalist and populist themes--such as his calls for retaliatory tariffs and his denunciations of corporate America.
“We shouldn’t play on people’s fears; we ought to play on their hopes and aspirations,” Dole contended in last week’s televised candidate debate here, a rebuke of Buchanan that echoed the view of nearly all party leaders. Buchanan, Dole charged, would “build a wall around America--you couldn’t export anything.”
What makes Buchanan’s candidacy all the more divisive is that he splits the conservative movement that is the GOP’s ideological and emotional core. Many conservatives, traditionally committed to free trade and an active U.S. role abroad, label Buchanan’s constant denunciations of international trade accords and the U.S. participation in U.N.-run peacekeeping operations as “protectionist” and “isolationist.” They also deride his efforts to become the GOP’s new “Mr. Conservative.”
“I think someone so profoundly out of the loop in terms of the central thrust of modern conservatism is going to find it hard to establish himself as a general hero of American conservatism,” said Everett Carll Ladd, head of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.
For Buchanan’s emergence, analysts say, Republicans can blame their continuing failure to find a compelling sequel to the philosophy that allowed Ronald Reagan to dominate the national political scene for eight years.
“Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum,” said Ladd, “and the weakness of the other candidates in the Republican field has given Buchanan an opportunity” he has fully exploited.
As Buchanan tells it, the GOP hierarchy has plenty of reason to be fearful of him. And he is trying to turn their opposition to his advantage.
“There is a terror that Pat Buchanan might succeed and bring about real change,” he said last week on a Manchester radio show. “By that I mean I will shake up not only the liberal establishment, but I will shake up the Beltway conservative establishment in Washington. We will have a fighting conservative administration that will push [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich into making changes, that will push Bob Dole into moving rapidly.”
Assuming the party ultimately chooses a “mainstream” candidate such as Dole as its standard-bearer, that nominee will have to deal with Buchanan’s positions, analysts say. And this could present a no-win choice.
Adopting some version of Buchanan’s views in a bid to placate him and his backers would make the nominee vulnerable to Democratic attack. But ignoring Buchanan’s views would risk alienating his supporters to the extent that they would stay home on election day or turn toward the third party Ross Perot is attempting to cobble together.
It is doubtful Buchanan’s hard-core supporters will forsake him, even if his candidacy fades. And Buchanan, for his part, is bending every effort to cement the loyalty of these followers--both the struggling members of the middle class drawn by his economic arguments and the social conservatives attracted by his unyielding opposition to abortion and his championship of traditional values.
“We stood by you all these years,” Buchanan reminded a Manchester rally of Christian Coalition members. “Stand by us now and give us a victory in New Hampshire and we will take [your] agenda right into the White House,” a pledge which provoked a resounding chorus of “Go, Pat, Go!” from his listeners.
He also displayed the type of rhetoric that animates his supporters but leaves others nonplused.
In denouncing the Supreme Court’s ban on school prayer, Buchanan, as he often does, evoked memories of the American Revolution. “If they had been ordered to get all the Bibles out of the schools,” Buchanan claimed, “the Founding Fathers would have said three little words: ‘lock and load.’ ”
He then quickly added: “Don’t get the wrong idea, press corps, we are going to do it peacefully.”
Ladd sees in Buchanan’s candidacy the potential for “the short-run discombobulation of Republican politics.”
This dynamic could surface in the Southern primaries next month in which Buchanan’s candidacy will likely “split the Republican Party,” said Emory University’s Merle Black, an authority on Southern politics. Buchanan can be expected to gain backing from Christian conservatives and those workers worried about their jobs, Black said, but affluent suburbanites who have become the backbone of the GOP in the South presumably would turn to almost anyone else.
Others worry that these types of internal tensions will boil over at the Republican National Convention this August in San Diego, especially if it is packed with a large number of Buchanan delegates.
“You can bet that’s not going to be any love-in,” conceded one Dole campaign aide.
More generally, continued prominence for the issues Buchanan’s candidacy promotes could hurt GOP chances of enlarging its base by reaching out to young voters and women, said Susan MacManus, author of “Young Versus Old,” a book on generational conflict in national politics.
She said younger voters, looking for economic growth and opportunity, would regard Buchanan’s economic views as too bleak, while many women would be turned off by his opposition to abortion.
Scholars point out that Buchanan’s candidacy stands on the shoulders of a long line of potent political dissenters. In this century, the roots of this tradition go back to Louisiana’s Huey P. Long, whose radical populism Buchanan emulated in part in his Feb. 6 victory in the Bayou State’s GOP caucuses, to George C. Wallace, whose appeals to racism tore the Democrats asunder during much of 1960s and ‘70s, and finally to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose efforts to cast himself as the liberal conscience for Democrats also divided the party in the 1980s.
What sets Buchanan apart from these earlier, self-styled paladins of the masses is that he is a Republican, a party which has not seen many prominent populists in recent years.
Also, some see Buchanan’s success--achieved by appealing to voters who feel they have fallen behind in the struggle to achieve the American dream as well as to social conservatives--as a consequence of the changes Reagan wrought in the Republican Party.
“They are a part of the Republican Party that the Reagan Revolution created,” said UCLA’s Petrocik. “These are the kinds of people who were likely to be Democrats 15 to 20 years ago and now we inherited them.”