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Jewish World Review Dec. 1, 1999 /22 Kislev, 5760

Michael Medved

Michael Medved
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Delusion and denial --
IN A NATION that loves underdogs and relishes upsets, why can't Pat Buchanan win the Presidency?

His "Peasant Army with Pitchforks" seems utterly untroubled by his present pathetic poll numbers, which seldom - if ever-rise to double-digits in prospective general election match-ups. They point to their man's unquestioned skill as a media communicator and expect his performance in televised debates to sway millions upon millions of viewers. Against two bumbling moderates like Bush and Gore, argue the Buchanan Brigadiers, why shouldn't Pat's clarity and conviction sway 35 to 40 per cent of the voters and bring him victory in a three-way race?

The answer is that it can't happen for two reasons that Buchanan, of all people, ought not to respect: history and the constitution.

As a serious student of American political history, Pat knows that over the course of more than 200 years no third party candidate-no, not one-has ever been elected President of the United States, or even come close to winning the White House. The best showing ever for a third party campaign came in 1912 with Teddy Roosevelt's doomed, gallant "Bull Moose" campaign. The former president drew only 27.4% of the popular vote-despite the fact that he remained the most admired man in America, having left the White House at the peak of his popularity less than four years before.

Reform Party true believers misleadingly cite the example of Abraham Lincoln as a third party contender who succeeded in winning the general election - ignoring the fact that the Republicans had already clearly established themselves as America's principal opposition party six years before Lincoln's triumph in 1860. In Congressional elections in 1854 and 1858, the newly organized Republicans already represented the most successful alternative to the dominant Democrats, and their Presidential nominee in 1856 finished a strong second. Yes, third party politics played a role in Lincoln's 1860 victory-because a Southern based, ideologically purist breakaway party drew 18% of the popular vote, dividing the Democrats and giving the GOP the White House.

The key differences with today's Reform Party seem painfully obvious-the early Republicans had already secured a formidable power base in the Senate, the House and the Governorships before they managed to win the White House. The Reform Party, on the other hand, has been struggling at the margins of American politics for nearly eight years and has won only one major election - Jesse Ventura's victory as governor of Minnesota.

For the year 2000, the Reformers won't even field candidates in most House, Senate and gubernatorial elections. Even at a time of maximum economic unrest and insecurity (always the most favorable environment for third party challengers), Ross Perot drew only 19% of the vote in 1992-and that was after a strong performance in televised debates, and spending some $60 million of his own money. Where would Pat Buchanan get comparable financial resources?

The second reason Buchanan can't win can be found in the Constitution that he reveres. Under our system of government, even a candidate who wins a plurality of the popular votes in a race that's divided three or four ways may well fall short of gaining the White House. He must first win enough separate states to provide a majority in the Electoral College-a daunting if not impossible task for any third party contender.

This is the crucial, overwhelming weakness in all Buchananite victory fantasies. It is simply impossible to put together a list of states Pat could carry in even a best-case scenario that amount to 270 electoral votes. For the sake of argument, cede him the "Solid South" (except for Texas and Florida, where the Bush brothers remain popular), add conservative strongholds like Idaho, Utah, Alaska, and North Dakota, then even throw in a few big heartland industrial states like Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Any way that you do the math, Buchanan falls short.

Pat himself can add electoral votes as well as the next guy, and he also knows that even the great Teddy Roosevelt with his substantial 27.4% of the popular vote in 1912 won only 88 electoral votes---182 short of victory, and pathetically far behind Woodrow Wilson's victorious 435.

One of the most disturbing aspects of Buchanan's whole campaign, in fact, is his repeated declaration that TR's celebrated "Bull Moose" campaign serves as his "inspiration." How can this notion encourage even Pat's most zealous followers? Why should we feel inspired by Theodore Roosevelt's self-destructive and ego-driven defeat? He succeeded only in dividing the Republicans and handing the election to a Democrat he hated.

Is that the ultimate goal of Buchanan's quixotic campaign? When cornered on this issue, his backers will concede that the best they can hope to achieve is winning enough electoral votes in a closely divided race so that the job of electing the new president goes to the House of Representatives. There, according to this theory, Buchanan can use his influence to determine the ultimate winner and to earn key concessions on "his issues." But what power or influence could this self-proclaimed outsider possibly wield in a House which contains not a single member (of 435) who supports his cause.

Buchanan's real goal, as he has hinted in several interviews, involves the long-term transformation of the Reform Party into a "real" conservative party that would eventually become the principal opposition vehicle to the Democrats. But what are the chances of building an uncompromising conservative movement on the shaky foundation of Ross Perot, Pat Choate, Lenora Fulani, Donald Trump and Jesse Ventura?

Shouldn't clear-thinking right-wingers prefer their chances of achieving change by working with the likes of Republicans Henry Hyde and J.C. Watts, John Engler and Tommy Thompson, Phil Gramm and Sam Brownback?

Unlike so many of my colleagues in the chattering classes, I don't denounce Pat Buchanan as an anti-Semite or a reckless demagogue; he remains in my eyes an impassioned patriot and a fervent idealist.

But when it comes to presidential politics, even the highest ideals must be tempered with realism, and even an orator and dreamer of Buchanan's gifts should soberly-- and unsentimentally-- reassess his chances.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 110 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.


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©1999, Michael Medved