Buchanan: the nightmare scenario

Pat hates big business and feminists; likes guns and white folks. John Lichfield looks at whether he can go all the way
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The Independent Online
It is a scary scenario. Bob Dole staggers, stumbles and falls; Lamar Alexander drowns in his own vacuity; Pat Buchanan, despite the increasingly desperate efforts of the Republican establishment to stop him, wins the party nomination at the San Diego convention in August. The convention is a parade of religious-right triumphalism and intolerance.

No one expects Buchanan to beat President Clinton in November. But then, in September, the US army suffers a disastrous reverse in a disintegrating Bosnia (reminiscent of Jimmy Carter's botched attempt to release the Tehran hostages in 1980). The US economy turns cold; a Whitewater smoking gun is found to implicate the Clintons in financial wrongdoing. Bill Clinton melts down and Buchanan is elected the 43rd President of the United States.

If that's not bad enough, in February 1997 there follows the first summit between President Buchanan and President Zhirinovsky (who had been elected sensationally in Russia the previous June). The two men - despite being remarkably similar characters, or maybe because of it - fall out savagely. Detente is over; the Cold War, the arms race, and history begin all over again

Who said politics does not matter any longer?

One cannot completely discount this version of the future; the US political mood is more than usually hysterical at present.

Fortunately, a safer future is a safer bet. All the smart political money in America now expects the anti-Buchanan vote of around 60 per cent, which split several ways in New Hampshire, to coalesce around either Bob Dole or the candidate running third, Lamar Alexander.

Yet for the moment at least, Pat Buchanan is making all the running and its likely that his influence upon the campaign will be more far reaching than that of the fading star of the millionaire publisher Steve Forbes.

One of the people most surprised by Pat Buchanan's early success is, almost certainly, Pat Buchanan. For all his brimstone rhetoric, Buchanan does not take himself entirely seriously as a politician. He knows enough about US politics to have packaged himself differently if he had hoped to go the whole way to the White House. Buchanan, better known recently as a newspaper columnist and TV pundit, used to write speeches for Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Now, like a gag-writer despairing of finding a front man, he has decided to do the stand-up routines himself. To his amazement he has brought the house down. But, beneath the ranting, there seems to be a crooked smile which says: "Wave those flags you suckers: but really its just li'l old me."

His success in New Hampshire can be attributed to many things: the astonishingly poor Republican primary field, which most party heavyweights refused to enter; the grassroots antipathy to politicians, cranked up by radio chat- show hosts and confirmed daily by politicians themselves; the erosion of the blue-collar American Dream that sons and daughters would always live better than their parents; the white backlash against the modest advances of some black people (and the violence of others); the male backlash against the advance of women.

Ross Perot proved it in 1992: Newt Gingrich in 1994: the United States, post Cold-War, steeped in the anxious 1990s, is ripe for a clever populist. Buchanan is the scariest so far. Buchanan is against immigration, free trade, US involvement with the UN, big business, abortion, gays and feminists. He is for the shop-floor, the small farm, the little guy, white people and guns. This is an explosive mixture of left- and right-wing themes: in European terms poujadiste, or proto-fascist, in American terms Prairie Populist.

Buchananism is not an attempt to extend the Newt Gingrich revolution, which gave lip-service to family values but put its faith in unrestrained capitalism and low taxes. It is not an attempt to restore Reaganism, which was rooted in free market dogma. Buchanan represents no one but himself and his grassroots supporters.

And where was this anti-establishment champion of the small man (forget the small woman) born? Not in middle America, but in Washington DC (where his father was an accountant and fan of Mussolini). And where has this outsider spent his whole career? In federal politics as presidential flunky, aide, script-writer and journalist. What is the greatest skill of the man who wishes to change the face of TV-led US politics? He is a professional TV performer.

If Clinton is chat-show host made President, Buchanan is the shock jock made candidate. This is his strength: and why he should not be underestimated. He has a detailed knowledge of modern political warfare. The big question for the next three to four weeks is whether he will run out of the principal political ammunition in the US: dollars.

Up to New Hampshire, Buchanan had raised about $7m - one third of the sum Bob Dole had raked in. He is said to be running short of funds. Most of Buchanan's cash comes from direct mailshots to individuals on the committed right. Some comes from groups like the National Rifle Association. The New Hampshire win will give him a boost but it is difficult to raise large sums from such sources in a short time. Corporate America is mostly closed to him.

The post New-Hampshire primary map favours Buchanan for a while (see graphic). Arizona next Tuesday and South Carolina on 2 March are fertile Buchanan country, full of disgruntled white guys in battered trucks with rifle-racks on the roof. Afterwards the campaign becomes more frantic and more scattered. Buchanan has a relatively small campaign team (essentially himself and his sister, Bay). He may struggle to cope with the demands of Super Tuesday on 12 March, with elections right across the South, followed a week later by Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. On the other hand, it is difficult to see Dole or Alexander setting the nation alight.

So could this be the first primary campaign to go the full distance for 40 years - the first ever under the new tighter rules, introduced since the 1970s? Primaries are supposed to be a league championship not a knock-out competition. According to the size of his vote in each state, a candidate amasses delegates to the party's national convention. A simple majority is needed to take the nomination.

In practice, primaries tend to become a knockout. Lack of money forces all but the front-runner out. This year, with the Republicans not just divided but riven, two or more candidates might slug it out to the end. We might get the networks' dream: a disputed convention.

That would also be a deliverance for Republican grandees. If there is no outright winner on the first convention ballot, it becomes possible for fresh candidates, unbruised by the primaries, to enter the race. Could Colin Powell yet be drafted? Or Newt Gingrich? On balance, it is unlikely. The modern primary system is designed to produce a first ballot winner. The last time there was a second ballot was in 1952.

Despite Buchanan's surging start, the most likely outcome is that Dole, or possibly Alexander, will take the prize. If so, a sullen religious right would most likely sit on its clasped hands in the autumn. An independent, such as Ross Perot, may well enter the race in the summer. But this would make a Clinton victory even more certain. A Perot-type figure would split the anti-Clinton vote and allow Bill Clinton to become the first Democrat to win two presidential elections since Franklin Roosevelt.

After only one primary, Republicans - so triumphant 18 months ago after Gingrich swept the Congressional elections - are contemplating at a political train wreck in 1996. But wise Democrats will not stand by and grin. The strands of left- and right-wing anger skilfully twined by Buchanan are a condemnation of the hollowness and shallowness of both major parties. Both have failed to face the implications of a long-gathering crisis: a crisis of trust in democratic politics in the world's greatest democracy.

In his own words...

On multiculturalism:

"I think God made all people good, but if we were to take a million immigrants in, say Zulus, next year, or Englishmen, and put them in Virginia, what group would be easier to assimilate and would cause less problems for the people of Virginia?"

"There is a religious war going on in this country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America."

"When we say we will put America first, we mean also that our Judaeo- Christian values are going to be preserved and our Western heritage is going to be handed down to future generations and not dumped into some landfill called multiculturalism."

On big business:

"Mr Bush, you recall, promised to create 30 million jobs. He didn't tell us he would be creating them in Guangdong Province, Yokohama or Mexico."

On capitalism:

"There's no doubt there is an inherent contradiction between conservatism and unfettered capitalism. Conservatives ought to be worshipping at a higher altar than the bottom line on a balance sheet. What in heaven's name is it that we conservatives want to conserve if not social stability and family unity? Such values are being thrown up on the altar. For what? So that I can get 37 varieties of shirts? I mean, what is it all about?"

On his political philosophy:

"A conservatism that speaks up for the working-class Americans who are betrayed by these trade deals that send their jobs over to Mexico; a new conservatism that's going to lift the burden of taxation and that burden of economic insecurity off the middle class. It's going to lift that burden of regulation and taxation off the small businesses that are the backbone of this country, that are creating the jobs when the big businesses are shutting them down."

"It is a new conservatism that speaks up for the working men and women of America whose jobs are being sent overseas in trade deals - done for the benefit of big trans-national corporations that don't care about America any more.

"A brand new, bold conservatism in American politics, a conservatism that gives voice to the voiceless."

On abortion:

"The tragedy and atrocity of the systematic slaughter of the life of unborn children across America. I will be the most pro-life president in the history of America."