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A Conservative No More

The tribal politics of Pat Buchanan.


Mr. Ponnuru is a National Review Senior Editor.

PATRICK J. Buchanan's impending departure from the Republican party is attracting interest as the only surprise of the political season. The real surprise is that it took him so long. It has been clear for some time that Buchanan's ideological wanderings have taken him far from the heartland of the Republican party and the conservative movement. As early as 1992, William McGurn was warning in these pages that while Buchanan described his presidential campaign as a "theological debate," "many a voice that starts off promising reformation finds itself swept along into schism."

Buchanan's intellectual fellow travelers certainly foresaw the possibility of such a schism; indeed, they egged it on. In a March 1996 column, Samuel Francis wrote that he had been telling Buchanan for years that his "refusal to break even more definitely with a more conventional conservative identity and with the Republican Party . . . is a serious error." Buchanan's identification as a Republican and a conservative, Francis continued, "dilutes and deflects the radicalism of the message."

That message has been diluted as well by some of Buchanan's conservative fans. They persist in seeing him as a comrade-in-arms. They insult him by pretending that his apparent heterodoxies aren't meant seriously. Some of them still deny even that he is a protectionist. He is merely a "fair trader," they say, though his book The Great Betrayal advocates that America 1) destroy the institutions that have promoted free trade since World War II; 2) impose across-the-board 15 percent tariffs on products from every country on earth, with the possible exception of Canada; and 3) impose heavy additional tariffs on poor countries. Buchanan's protectionism, like his near-isolationism, might not matter were it a mere idiosyncrasy. Both positions have conservative pedigrees. His promise to run both a trade surplus and an investment surplus — which is impossible as a matter of simple math, not just theory — might be passed off as a quaint example of the literary intellectual's indifference to economics. (Early in his poignant memoir, Right from the Beginning, Buchanan remarks that he agrees with the wit who said that "voodoo economics" is a redundancy.) His view that Hitler and Stalin should have been left alone to duke it out might be a stimulating provocation.

But Buchanan's views on trade and foreign policy have become central to his politics; it's hard to dismiss them as incidental to Buchananism, now that he has written a book on each and apparently decided to bolt the Republican party because of them. He talks more about these views than he does about immigration control, where he would have a better case. Moreover, as Buchanan's conservative critics predicted, his shift on trade has led him inexorably to the left on domestic matters.

In The Great Betrayal, Buchanan compares free markets to the law of the jungle and writes, "Better the occasional sins of a government acting out of the spirit of charity than the constant omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference." Conservatives who grind their teeth every time George W. Bush uses his favorite adjective should remember that Buchanan was the very first compassionate conservative — "I may charge him with plagiarism," he says. Buchanan has been slow to grasp the full implications of his new political stance. He still, for instance, opposes increasing the minimum wage. But his "conservatism of the heart" has moved him to favor higher unemployment benefits, to support a cap on executive pay, and to condemn Republicans' brave efforts in 1995 to curb the growth of Medicare.

Buchanan almost never talks about cutting government any more, certainly not about ending specific programs or programs that benefit the middle class. It is true that most Republicans these days share this reticence. But only Buchanan says that advocates of the flat tax have spent too much time with "the boys down at the yacht basin." Not even liberal Democrats bash corporations with his gusto, deploring as he does their greed, questioning their loyalty, and second-guessing their decisions. (For all the anti-corporate rhetoric, of course, a Buchananite economic policy would in practice involve an alliance between Big Government, Big Business, and Big Labor — as every country that has tried to implement such a policy has found out.)

This is not the conservatism of Ronald Reagan, or Barry Goldwater, or William F. Buckley Jr. It is not even, as is so often incorrectly said, a revival of Robert Taft Republicanism: Taft didn't play to the union halls, and Medicare would have horrified him. Every writer creates his own precursors, wrote Borges, and Buchanan seems to have taken the remark too literally: He likes to imagine that his views are the same as those of the Founders, as though Hamilton's nuanced and moderate protectionism were the same as his blunderbuss kind. No, his politics are a new phenomenon.

In his book Revolution from the Middle, Francis argues that Buchananism, unlike conventional conservatism, has a social base: the "Middle American Radicals" (MARs), lower-middle-class whites who feel culturally and economically dispossessed. For these people, the trouble with the federal government is not that it is too big but that it is run by elites who are disloyal to them. Writes Francis: "Only Buchanan managed to capture the strange synthesis of right and left that characterizes the political beliefs of MARs — their combination of culturally conservative moral and social beliefs with support for economically liberal policies such as Medicare, Social Security, unemployment benefits, and economic nationalism and protectionism."

Conservatives tend to place a lot of emphasis, maybe too much, on the idea that ideas have consequences. They hoist their ideas up the flagpole and then see who salutes. Buchananism puts its idealized social base first, and lets it drive everything else. For Buchanan, loyalty to the tribe trumps any idea. On this point at least, Buchanan may justly claim not to have changed his views. His recent, tentative proposal that elite universities institute quotas for Italian-Americans builds on an idea first expressed in his 1975 book Conservative Votes, Liberal Victories. Buchananism is a form of identity politics for white people — and becomes more worrisome as it is married to collectivism.

If Buchananism is a novelty as ideology, it does have an antecedent as political strategy. Buchanan's mentor, Richard Nixon, succeeded in winning over the same constituency — it was then known as the (George) Wallace vote — by exploiting its cultural grievances while tacking left on the size and role of government. Buchanan wants to recreate Nixon's coalition of 1972. Just as Nixon got AFL-CIO president George Meany not to oppose him, so Buchanan is reportedly courting Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa Jr. to be his running mate. But the Nixon coalition was not a conservative coalition, as Nixon's policies amply proved.

Wage and price controls, the EPA, quotas, arms control — these just begin the list of Nixon's statist-liberal policies. Lyndon Johnson created the Great Society, but Richard Nixon funded it. M. Stanton Evans, the conservative journalist, cracked at the time that he had only two objections to the Nixon administration: its foreign policy and its domestic policy. Watergate, he said, was the only thing Nixon had done that he liked. Now that the passions of Watergate have receded, observers of all political persuasions are coming to recognize that Nixon achieved more for liberalism than any of his successors.

It must have become increasingly clear to Buchanan that the Nixon coalition could no longer be built from within the GOP. The exit polls from the Republican primaries of 1996 suggest that he would have been better off running as a Reaganite. Buchanan barely won the self-described "very conservative" vote and got crushed among voters who care primarily about taxes, i.e., economic conservatives; he didn't get any more independents and Democrats to vote for him in the primaries than Bob Dole did. Voters who cared about trade were heavily against Buchanan on the west coast, and leaned toward him only slightly elsewhere.

What actually motivated the Buchanan brigades to pick up their pitchforks was, above all, their opposition to abortion. Buchanan won the 1996 New Hampshire primary because 64 percent of those voters whose top issue was abortion rallied to him. These pro-lifers must now be astonished to learn that Buchanan, in pursuit of a national ticket and $12.6 million in federal matching funds, cares more about trade and foreign policy than he does about abortion. He is apparently willing to join a pro-choice party and to risk helping the Democrats appoint two or three more Supreme Court justices in a post-Clinton administration.But even Christian conservatives, many of whom are also economic conservatives, have deserted him. Buchanan's vote peaked his first time out: He has never equaled his showing in February 1992, when he won 37 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. There were, of course, non-ideological reasons for Buchanan's subsequent burnouts. To begin with, he was surprisingly lackadaisical about politics for someone who wants to reshape it. After losing in 1996, Buchanan went back to CNN; Steve Forbes, by contrast, never left the hustings. Gary Bauer has raised money for other candidates; Buchanan has done nothing to nurture a like-minded cadre in Congress. Buchanan's showing in the Iowa straw poll in August — Bauer placed higher — underlined the point that he has no future in the Republican party. The most recent poll shows him with the backing of only 3 percent of Republican voters, and he has the support of no acknowledged conservative figure.

Does he have a future outside the GOP? It's going to be difficult to create such a coalition as Buchanan envisions. The world has changed since the Nixon administration: The workers he wants to court are now more likely to be watching the stock market than to be joining a strike. The Reform party poses challenges of its own. Its lack of ideology and structure make it vulnerable to a Buchanan takeover — he's more organized than it is — but these same qualities would make it hard for him to run an ideological campaign.

There is also the matter of Buchanan's vestigial moral conservatism. Within one week, Buchanan could be found pledging both to keep fighting for the unborn and to downplay such issues in order to keep secular-minded Reform voters with him. As Francis, always a more clear-headed theorist of Buchananism than Buchanan himself, puts it: "Religion is not the most effective political and ideological vehicle for expressing and publicly vindicating the frustrations that animate the Middle American Revolution because the Christianity of the right simply doesn't encompass very many Middle American interests." This is quite correct in theory: A mass movement based on anger and resentment, let alone the racial themes that animate Francis, is not likely to be big on the brotherhood of man. But since Christian conservatives rather than Middle American Radicals have in fact made up Buchanan's base, the candidate seems to be hunting where the ducks aren't.

One presumes that Buchanan actually believes that his peasants will be able to storm the White House, even if they have not been able to dislodge the barons and baronesses of the GOP. Again, the reality will be different: His campaign will simply demonstrate further the impossibility of his politics in modern America. This is true almost regardless of the final tally. If the Democrats win because of his presence in the race, Republicans may feel they must move in his direction. But any such Republican party would likely be a rump party: Like George McGovern, Buchanan would have ascended to the leadership of a minority party by ejecting a constituency of a majority party — in this case, economic conservatives. He would remake the Right at the cost of letting the Left remake the country. If, on the other hand, the Republicans win with a healthy majority, Buchanan will be marginalized.

It would be folly to try to predict how well Buchanan would do in a general election. Can his belief that Americans are decadent for wanting to be able to buy fruit out of season withstand political scrutiny? How many voters will be moved by his terrific rhetorical talents? Will he actually get the Reform nomination at all?

Whether Buchanan deserves any support from conservatives — that should be an easier question.Conservatism is a house with many mansions. But for more than four decades, whatever their philosophical first principles, conservatives have agreed on a basic program: an anti-totalitarian foreign policy, at once nationalist and internationalist; free markets and limited government at home; and moral traditionalism. Buchanan is at war with the first two planks of this platform, and he is no longer reliable even on the moral issues, yielding as he has to other priorities. Where conservatives attribute our burgeoning underclass to moral breakdown, he blames capitalism. He embraces relativism abroad: Totalitarian, nationalist dictatorships are a natural outgrowth of Arab culture. And he is willing to risk a permanently pro-abortion Supreme Court on a lark.

During the '80s, conservatives used to groan every time Kevin Phillips was quoted as a "conservative" saying something snippy about Ronald Reagan. They joked that he had acquired a new first name, "Even," as in, "Even Kevin Phillips opposes these tax cuts." Like Buchanan, Phillips is an old Nixon hand who decided at some point that exploiting cultural resentments and seeing various elites get their comeuppance mattered more than expanding freedom. The difference is that letting Buchanan continue to describe himself as a conservative would be not just irritating but destructive. He is in no important sense a conservative any more. Let his failure be his alone.

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