Appeal to little man has party in a spin

Buchanan is alarming top Republicans and their backers. John Carlin reports

IMAGINE that you have just been laid off, or have reason to fear that you might. Or that your company is in trouble and the shareholders are weighing up whether to cut their losses and close the business down.

Should you believe that politics might provide the answer to your problems you would naturally be inclined, if you happened to be American, to vote for the Democratic Party. The Republicans, after all, are the defenders of Big Business, the trickle-downers, the standard-bearers of laissez- faire capitalism. Or are they? The scrap for the Republican presidential nomination has plunged the party into a crisis of identity.

Bob Dole, the veteran senator struggling to make a success of his third bid for the presidency, has defined the primary contest as "a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party". The man against whom the battle must be waged is Pat Buchanan, the CNN talk-show warrior whose populist, anti-establishment, bash-the-corporations message, with its metaphors of pitchfork-wielding peasants storming castles, has found an echo among large, anxious sectors of the Republican-voting public. Until his third-place finish in Arizona on Tuesday he was leading the primary pack, but he still remains neck and neck with Mr Dole, Steve Forbes and Lamar Alexander. And of the four, indeed of anybody in the Republican Party, his voice is the loudest, his message the sharpest, his rhetoric the best-honed.

No matter whether he fades out of the running soon, he will continue to make a noise all the way to the Republican convention in San Diego in August. While others may drop out, no one doubts Mr Buchanan's hungry determination to stay the course.

"To have Buchanan frame the debate of the Republican Party is pretty disastrous," said William Kristol, editor of the pro-Republican Weekly Standard. "He's a threat to conservatism. He's posing a fundamental threat to the Republican party on a whole range of issues."

Mr Kristol, whose publication is owned by Rupert Murdoch, lamented the failure both of the Republican grandees in Washington and the primary candidates themselves to draw a sharp line between the party and what he calls "the anti-capitalist" positions Mr Buchanan stands for. For Mr Buchanan proposes not only to erect a trade wall around the United States, but to introduce a tax code designed to punish companies that eliminate jobs.

This is a powerful message to the resentful "little guy", powerless before the ruthless corporation bosses. So much so that many people, including some erstwhile Democrats, who do not share Buchanan's extremist views on social issues voted for him anyway. In the New Hampshire primary, which he won, exit polls showed that 80 per cent of those who voted for him did not agree with him that abortion should be outlawed.

But that's one of his milder positions. See some of his past remarks about women, Jews and blacks and the conclusion is not unreasonable that he is the white man's Louis Farrakhan. "If we had to take a million immigrants in, say Zulus, next year, or Englishmen, and put them in Virginia," he said in 1991, "what group would be easier to assimilate?"

The Republican establishment, attached as they are to the notion that their party is open to a wide cross-section of the population, feel no more comfortable with this kind of talk than they do with Mr Buchanan's attacks on the party's corporate backers. "Buchananism," Mr Kristol wrote last week, "is a corrosive and anti-institutional populism that threatens to undo the gains of 1994 and trap the GOP [grand old party] in an anti-American, anti-capitalist swamp - the very swamp into which the Democratic Party stumbled in the late 1960s."

What makes the present state of affairs all the more galling is that barely a year ago the Republican Party was riding high. Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, was the King of Washington and Mr Clinton was so outgunned that he felt it necessary to insist that, contrary to appearances, the American presidency remained "relev- ant". Right-wing Tories like John Redwood were flying to Washington to sit at Mr Gingrich's feet, imagining that by touching the hem of his garment they might be infused with his magic powers.

Where is Mr Gingrich today? "Locked up in the basement", in the words of James Carville, one of Mr Clinton's buoyant election strategists. As for the Contract with America, the manifesto for Mr Gingrich's now defunct revolution, the Republican presidential candidates have left it well alone, fearing to sip from the poisoned chalice.

The Contract's, and therefore the Republicans', chief articles of faith were family values, killing off Big Government and balancing the budget. These aims would be achieved by abolishing spending on teenage mothers, cutting taxes, generally devolving power from Washington to the individual. Good, classic Republican orthodoxy. The big corporations would benefit and, as day follows night, so would ordinary Americans.

Today, that unanimity is fractured. The heart of the party has shifted from Congress to the stump and here Americans are hearing a cacophony of discordant notes. Buchanan seems to be saying "Family values are great but let's also eat the rich!" Steve Forbes, another party heretic who makes up for his lack of charisma with money, seems to trill "Never mind the budget, let's not worry too much about family values, a flat tax will sort us out". Bob Dole mutters that leadership's the thing, while tying himself in knots over abortion, and Lamar Alexander says nothing in particular, very earnestly.

What the Republican Party needs is a centrist candidate with the eloquence of Mr Buchanan the intelligence of Mr Forbes, the experience of Mr Dole and the amiable ordinariness of Mr Alexander. In the end, as Mr Gingrich's example shows, the party's problems boil down to a lack of leadership, a marketable unifying voice. Hence the pitiable whisperings in Washington and beyond, "If only Colin Powell had run..."

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