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Jewish World Review Sept. 28, 1999 /18 Tishrei, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Enter Buchanan -- THE EVER REVOLVING membership of the Reform Party should be happy. The party is about to have a real, certified big name as its presidential candidate-and-spoiler come 2000: Pat Buchanan.

But if Pat's followers are happy, Democrats should be overjoyed. Because, like Ross Perot in '92, this candidate could draw enough votes from the Republican nominee to elect another Democrat president with only a minority of the popular vote. Split the right, and the left benefits. Some of us can already picture Bill Bradley taking the inaugural oath.

Pat Buchanan's just the guy to bring this off. With his appeal to protectionists, isolationists, xenophobes, people of (pale) color, and all the resentfuls of middle America, he could prove the most mischievous demagogue since George Wallace.

That would be the George Wallace of 1968, before The Guvnah's latter-day conversion to peace and good will after black folks started registering to vote in Alabama in great numbers.

If Pat Buchanan polled the votes of the economically illiterate alone, he might sweep left and right, and be elected in a landslide. He's the kind of thinker who's a shouter. Get ready to turn Campaign 2000 into "Crossfire.''

Any difference between commentator and candidate is negligible. One year out of every four, he just changes the billing, not the act. In both roles, divisiveness is not just a byproduct of Pat Buchanan's politics; it is the essence. Mainly he appeals to the kind of voters/viewers who just want to see some monkey wrenches thrown. He's always been more rhetorician than politician. He's a lapsed editorial writer, for gosh sakes.

Whether he's stirring religious, ethnic or class conflict, Pat Buchanan is always stirring something, and having a delicious time of it. His grin is that of the bad boy who knows he's being bad, and nothing seems to delight him like the apoplexy he gives the respectables.

This would all be quite entertaining, even satisfying, if it were only entertainment -- like Michael Moore's separate but equal kind of establishment-baiting on TV. He and Pat are brothers under the political skin, essentially engaged in just having a good time at the expense of the country's more sober types. Theirs is the joie de vivre of the gate crasher, the heckler, the bomb thrower who doesn't actually expect to change things, but just wants to enjoy the explosion.

Whether of the left or right, contemporary Populism seems to have no point to it except to outrage the bourgeoisie. American Populism at century's end is reactionary, which is the soul-satisfying thing about it, but without any purpose or platform or any point to it at all except being reactionary. Which is the hollow thing about it. It has no destination, no project, no dream except to squash the high-collar types.

Pat Buchanan's real role model is not Jefferson or Lincoln but Joe McCarthy. Nostalgia buffs can take in a Buchanan performance and be transported back to the 1950s. He's got the same demeanor as the junior senator from Wisconsin, the same brutal but somehow playful way with buzzwords and epithets and offhand accusations, the same genius for inspiring paranoia among the already fearful, even the same 5 o'clock shadow and wrestler's build.

He lacks only Tail Gunner Joe's sincerity.

Of course Pat Buchanan could be worse; he could actually have a program. Let's be grateful he's sticking with politics as entertainment, a la Warren Beatty. His appeal begins and ends with a set of class and ethnic allegiances. After that, the man really has nothing to say. Even if he can talk forever. He deals only in revenge, never hope, and a petty vengefulness at that. His is a kind of inverted class prejudice -- a snobbery from below.

The surest victim of a Buchanan candidacy would be the country's two-party system and American political stability in general. His greatest obstacle would be neither the Republican nor Democratic nominee, but American prosperity. It's hard for a demagogue to gain much ground in good times. But he can always hope for a downturn before election day.

Pat Buchanan is leaving the Republican Party because Republicans left him some time ago. A major disruption in '92, a constant irritant in '96, he is scarcely a factor in Republican politics this year. Mainly because many of his grievances have been addressed: Welfare is being reformed; the crime rate continues to fall; the budget has been balanced and now surpluses loom; racial quotas grow unfashionable and even illegal; political correctness has become a handicap instead of a requirement; NATO's intervention in Kosovo has not proven the disaster this era's isolationists predicted; and the economy remains strong. It's even possible that taxes may be cut someday. For a candidate of Pat Buchanan's particular talents, all this good news is bad news. Demagogues need disasters to flourish.

It's been one disappointment after another for poor Pat. The religious war that he declared in the Astrodome at the Republican convention of '92 failed to ignite, and the cultural war no longer inflames Americans, what with the Clinton Years waning. Deprived of incendiary issues, and with the Republicans preparing to crown another Bush as their presidential nominee, the old agitator has gone looking for another party to exploit. And he's found one with millions in federal funds to spend.

Richard Hofstadter, the great historian and debunker of American Populism, could have been describing Pat Buchanan's political vision when he said of the Populists of the last century: "The Utopia of the Populists was in the past, not the future.'' That's where Pat is, too, back with the ghosts of America First and a mono-ethnic America that never was.

Nor has Populism's political style changed since the fiery Mary Ellen Lease was advising Midwestern farmers back in the 1880s to raise less corn and more hell. The issues a Populist candidate raises are incidental; the resentment stirred is what counts. Any scapegoat will do: globalization, immigration, whatever moves the crowd. The basic technique hasn't changed since Huey Long's day, though the oratory has deteriorated considerably.

Isolationists tend to picture American liberty as a flame that has to be protected by slipping an airtight container over it, rather than a light to the world. Pat Buchanan's ideological antecedents saw America as some kind of fortress that could flourish in isolation, rather than a lamp to the world. And so does this new champion of protectionism, this rock-chunker who's now about to disrupt another party.

Pat Buchanan's candidacy for the Reform nomination now seems all but certain. After all, the Reform Party's guaranteed kitty of $12.6 million in campaign funds awaits its next presidential candidate. And this old campaigner actually likes being on the stump, unlike the kind of candidate who's hard to distinguish from the wooden platform he's speaking from. Yes, I'm referring to Al Gore.

So prepare for a rollicking year of Pat Buchanan appealing to our worst instincts, basest resentments, and greatest fears -- with $12.6 million in tax money to spend. Mischief hasn't been so much fun since the Wallace campaign of '68. But now it'll be brought to you courtesy of federal election funds. Wherever Pat Buchanan winds up in the election results, he's got to be Argument No. 1 against the public financing of presidential candidates.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate