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Jewish World Review July 10, 2000/ 7 Tamuz, 5760

Charles Krauthammer

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Buchanan's Gift To Bush -- WHY IS GEORGE W. BUSH doing so well? Of the dozen reasons adduced, most have to do with Al Gore--his biweekly change of persona, his recurring investigative troubles, his sheer unattractiveness. Some explanations have to do with Bush himself--the steadiness of his performance since the primaries and, perhaps ominously for Republicans, the fact that he does best in the polls when he is out of sight (he was never more popular than when he was almost completely unseen in 1999).

But one of the most important reasons has been overlooked. It is the dog--the attack dog--that didn't bark. There is no Pat Buchanan. His defection from the Republican Party has been a gift to the Bush candidacy.

Take, for example, the amicable compromise that the Bush folks reached with conservatives on the party platform. Bush agreed not to change the language on abortion, and in return the conservatives are giving him their blessing to pander to the electorate on education, health care and whatever other compassionately conservative goodies he chooses to bestow upon the nation. It is excellent electoral politics and even better intraparty politics.

Why was a deal so relatively easy? It is true that conservatives are willing to give Bush more ideological running room than they gave his father in '92 or Dole in '96 because they are so hungry to recapture the White House. And it is true that Bush established his conservative credentials during the primary season when he found himself to the right--the hard right--of John McCain. That unforeseen political alignment was pure dumb luck. But Bush's greatest dumb luck was Buchanan's packing up and leaving the Republican Party. With his primary successes in '92 and '96, Buchanan had seized the mantle of leader of the conservative wing of the party. He wielded that power with the destructive self-righteousness perfected by liberal Democrats in the pre-Clinton years. Without him around, Bush's man, Gov. Tommy Thompson, has had a much easier time hammering out a compromise party platform.

Ever since Buchanan left to take over the Reform Party, there has been talk about how much he will hurt Bush. On the contrary. His leaving is an unmitigated boon. For the decade after Reagan left the scene, Buchanan wounded the party not just with damaging primary and platform fights, but with the coloration he gave the GOP by his presence as a grandee.

His stature was symbolically confirmed before a nationwide audience with his obligatory and incendiary convention speeches. They added no votes to the Republican column. They only subtracted: His reckless talk of culture wars and religious wars left swing voters mystified or mortified. Moreover, Buchanan did not just leave, he took some of his flock with him. This has some Republicans fretting about the few percent of the vote he will take from Bush in November. They are missing the point.

Buchanan's role within the Republican Party was to lead the unappeasables. The very absence of this fringe makes it far easier--at the convention, in the platform, in rhetoric and in policy--for the Republicans to mildly realign toward the center. And with Clinton having taught the Democrats how to poach the center from the left, a Republican inability to do the same would permanently shut them out of power.

Buchanan does not represent Republicanism. He is not a conservative; he is a reactionary. He is far closer to Ralph Nader than to George W. Bush. Buchanan and Nader may differ over the love of trees, but they share a world view: They see the root of evil in corporate power, free trade and the great post-World War II multilateral institutions (such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization) that manage the world system under U.S. aegis. In their economic, political and moral opposition to the very structure of contemporary America, they are ideological twins.

The extremes of left and right generally meet on the far side of the political spectrum. In December, they met--Nader and Buchanan--in the streets of Seattle. Between them, they will divide the fringe vote. It will be a wash. Ralph will take the tree-hugging, pro-choice fringe from Gore; Pat will take the lock-and-loaders from Bush. John McCain was right to invite Buchanan out of the party back in September. Without Buchanan, the Republican Party remains as big a tent as ever. It has simply moved a few degrees of rationality away from the edge.

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