Pat Buchanan: Suddenly Politics is Interesting Again

Douglas Koopman

October 1, 1999

Pat Buchanan’s abandonment of the Republican Party to pursue the Reform Party presidential nomination is already reshaping the 2000 presidential campaign landscape. If he captures the Reform nomination, Buchanan certainly could affect the outcome in November 2000. But it is Democrats, not Republicans, who have the most to fear from a Pat Buchanan-led Reform Party.

Here’s why.

First, the issues. The three key issues on which Buchanan bases his appeal all hurt Democrats the most. Buchanan’s number one issue is an “America First” trade strategy, using the federal government to protect existing American jobs. Buchanan wants to raise trade barriers, cut foreign economic assistance, and punish with trade sanctions nations such as China that have poor human rights records. Although poor economic theory, Buchanan’s number one issue is good political strategy. It places the American worker first in line for government help, a position not long ago held by national Democrats but essentially abandoned by Clinton in his embrace of open trade with Canada and Mexico, and economic aid to Russia and China.

Buchanan’s foreign policy positions are another way he separates himself from the two parties. Pat would resurrect the isolationism of the early 1940s, cutting our foreign commitments, military spending, and international role. His views result in a national posture of nonintervention, not unlike Vietnam syndrome Democrats of our recent past.

The third issue Pat Buchanan highlights is corruption in Washington, D.C. His appealing message of government reform and taking on the Washington elite will daily remind voters of the repeated fundraising and presidential scandals that define Washington politics in the Clinton era. While for years after Watergate Democrats had an apparent ethical advantage over Republicans, the Clinton presidency has effectively reversed that view.

Twenty years ago trade protection, international non-intervention, and political corruption were issues the Democrats “owned.” Buchanan can run on these issues now, pulling away Democrats already disaffected from “Clinton fatigue.”

Republicans, meanwhile, have pretty easy rebuttals to Buchanan. In his social conservatism, Buchanan doesn’t differ too much from Republican frontrunner George W. Bush and his chief challenger John McCain. Bush can take on trade policy by speaking to the experience of Texas with its neighbor Mexico; McCain can do likewise with Arizona as his model. Buchanan’s new isolationism can be addressed by the Republican frontrunners, most strongly by Vietnam War hero McCain. And attacking political corruption is McCain’s strongest card, although a tougher sell for Bush.

Beyond issues, Buchanan’s candidacy elevates the “outsider” campaign as a voting issue, which always hurts the incumbent party. And Democrats helped make unserious candidates, of which Buchanan must be considered one, more plausible. Bill Clinton showed that a conspicuously ambitious and immature, albeit highly intelligent, person can win the presidency. If the American voter decides it wants a grown-up in the White House again, and there is strong evidence it does, Republicans will do far better than either Buchanan or the Democrats.

Third, the way individuals make voting decisions indicate a Buchanan candidacy would harm Democrats more. Regular Republican voters who might otherwise be attracted to Buchanan won’t vote for him because they have a greater fear for a “third Clinton term.” On the other hand, Democrats suffering from “Clinton fatigue” might vote for Buchanan because Gore (or far less likely Bradley) is going to lose anyway.

Buchanan’s candidacy also changes the internal dynamics of each of the two major party nomination fights. For Republicans, he mostly hurts George W. Bush. Bush now has fewer primary opponents, which makes each remaining challenger relatively stronger with John McCain as his main adversary. And Buchanan’s issues of trade, isolation, and corruption, if they become part of the agenda, work better for McCain than Bush. Although Bush is unlikely to be derailed by McCain, that upset is slightly more likely now. And Democrat Bill Bradley gains marginally over Vice-President Gore, as Bradley is more plausibly an outsider and more serious about helping lower and middle income Americans.

There’s no small amount of irony in Buchanan’s conversion to the Reform Party. While the party states that it is out to change the campaign finance laws, it is a creature and captive of it. Its appeal for Buchanan and other ambitious politicians depends entirely upon the $12.6 million in taxpayers’ money it can bestow upon its presidential nominee, courtesy of our presidential election laws because it drew a sufficient number of votes in 1996. And the party depends on a respectable showing in 2000 to keep living off the public purse. So the Reform Party, with a limited policy platform and no grass-roots structure, depends on publicity to substitute for organization. And Buchanan is great at attracting attention. Thanks to Pat, it promises to be an interesting ride.

Douglas Koopman teaches political science at Calvin College and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.