The Buchanan triangle

Most analysts think a run by Buchanan under the Reform Party banner would hurt Bush more than Gore. It's time to think again.


Micah L.Sifry
September 15, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

In the last piece I wrote for Salon News in late June, "Will Pat Buchanan and Jesse Ventura join forces?" I confidently predicted that, despite their common reputation as critics of the political establishment, Buchanan would not abandon the GOP race to run for the Reform Party's presidential nomination; and even if he did, Ventura would not support him.

Well, maybe I'll still be half-right. While Buchanan has all but declared that he's jumping over to the Reform race, Ventura still seems to be resisting an alliance. But the Minnesota governor may yet have to reconcile himself to Pitchfork Pat's juggernaut -- despite his dislike of Buchanan's social and religious views.

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If that happens, I'll be eating a second helping of crow. So much for journalistic predictions.

There's still, of course, a tiny chance that Buchanan will stop short of making the final break with the party that nurtured him and that he has served loyally under Presidents Reagan and Nixon. But after watching him tell Tim Russert on Sunday's "Meet the Press" that he won't endorse the Republican nominee, that the GOP has become "a Xerox copy" of the Democratic Party and that he is leaning "strongly" in the direction of jumping into the Reform ring, most observers have concluded that he has indeed made the necessary psychological leap already.

For Buchanan, this switch must be nearly as difficult as if he were to leave the Catholic Church. But it's possible that, like many people nearing retirement age, he feels he has only one last chance to make his mark. Some older people feel liberated from social pressures that shackle their juniors, and Buchanan may be one of them.

The amazing thing is that he and his inner circle of advisors and funders think he actually can win. As my colleague Doug Ireland and I reported in the Nation recently, two days after the Republican straw poll in Ames, Iowa, the entire team met at Buchanan's home to discuss Pat's future.

With the exception of his wife, Shelley, who said nothing, everyone favored a switch to Reform. Their reasoning makes sense: With billionaire Steve Forbes and activist Gary Bauer soaking up the social conservative vote, Buchanan has little chance of breaking through in the early GOP primaries as he did in 1992 and 1996.

By contrast, the Reform Party nomination is wide open, and the party's candidate will get $12.6 million in public funds for the general election, along with a shot at the presidential debates. Combine disaffected conservatives with Perot independents, Reagan Democrats and trade-unionists (like the busloads of Teamsters who showed up in Ames to vote for Pat) and Buchanan sees himself getting at least one-third of the vote under this scenario.

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Can he be stopped by the Ventura forces? Will Perot let Buchanan step into his shoes? No and yes are the quick answers. Ventura has not hidden his dislike of Buchanan's right-wing politics (though he, like everyone else in this country, seems to have decided that there's no need to go into the repulsive details), going so far as to call him a "retread" who couldn't win his own party's nomination.

But Ventura, and all the other self-proclaimed centrists in the Reform Party, can't prevent Buchanan from winning the party's nomination without a stronger candidate who can beat him. And none is in sight.

Lowell Weicker spent much of the summer ruminating about running while noting publicly that he disagreed with many Reformers on such issues as free trade (he's for it), term limits (against) and guns (he'd ban them).

He's lousy on campaign finance reform, another concern close to Reformers' hearts, because of a mistaken belief that it can't be done without tampering with the First Amendment. It's not for nothing that one top Ventura operative told me in August that Weicker's "not doing anything to make me think he'd be a strong candidate for the Reform Party."

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Then there's Donald Trump, the latest name being floated by Ventura. "He's like me," Ventura told the Washington paper the Hill last week. "He offers us a very successful businessman who knows how to do business. He also offers us an out-of-the-box character like me who can paint these other two candidates with the same brush I did. I think he's a dynamic speaker."

But Trump is a major wheeler-dealer who, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, has since 1995 given more than $250,000 in campaign contributions, including $181,500 in soft money, to a bipartisan array of Democratic and Republican lawmakers and candidates ranging from Republicans Steve Forbes, Bob Dole and Al D'Amato to Democrats Ted Kennedy, Charles Rangel and John Kerry. It's hard to see how Trump could really meet the standards of an "out-of-the-box" insurgent like Ventura. Fat cats like Trump built the box Ventura and his allies are trying to escape.

Ventura's control of the Reform Party also should not be overstated. The fact that he helped elect the party's new chairman, Jack Gargan of Florida, at the July convention in Michigan means less than it appeared to at first, since Gargan doesn't formally take over till Jan. 1. In the days after the convention, outgoing chairman Russ Verney -- a Perot loyalist through and through -- gave assurances to Gargan that he was ready and willing to step down as early as Sept. 1.

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But then he issued an ultimatum: Gargan must publicly endorse the party's nomination rules as they now stand before Verney would surrender his post. Under the current rules, supported by Verney and Perot, the party's candidate will be selected by a mail ballot starting next July and culminating at the August convention. Potential nominees have to be working to qualify as an independent candidate in enough states to win a hypothetical majority of electoral votes. Ballots will then be mailed to people who sign their petitions, as well as anyone else who requests one.

This process in effect makes the Reform Party a party for rent. Anyone with a strong grass-roots base and/or deep-pocketed backers can try to take it over. As matters now stand, the Democratic and Republican nominees could each flood the Reformers' "national primary" with mischief-making voters seeking to nominate whatever candidate might hurt their opponent most.

Gargan refused Verney's demand, in part because he is worried that the process could put the party "at grave risk of bankruptcy should outside forces mobilize to take [it] over." (For starters, they are going to have to come up with millions of dollars to pay for the mail-in balloting process.) So he won't be taking the reins until next year, when it will be too late, under the party's constitution, to make any changes in the process.

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There are also many signs that Ventura's chief rival, Perot, is ready to pass the torch to Buchanan. His 1996 vice presidential candidate, Pat Choate, has been loudly beating the drums for Buchanan, with Perot's evident approval. And despite Perot's moderate views on abortion, in his personal and business life he is much closer to Buchanan's uptight views than Ventura's libertine ways.

Though no one can say for sure what the temperamental Texan will do, it's also worth noting that he has good reason to stay focused on his business. Last I checked, Perot Systems stock had dropped to around $20 a share, after an IPO in February that went from $16 to a high of $85.75.

So, with Buchanan the clear front-runner for the Reform nomination, what does this all mean?

I don't buy the current theory that this spells Bush's doom, though the parallels to 1992 -- when Buchanan wounded Bush's father in the primaries, and then Perot helped do him in in the debates -- are real. But while current polls do show Buchanan drawing more from the Republican column than the Democrats, scoring as high as 16 percent in one survey that asked about a three-way race between him, Bush and Gore, so far Buchanan has spent nearly all of his time targeting the Republican base. If he moves to the Reform Party, that will change.

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Few recall that in the 1996 primaries, he started drawing big crowds -- and votes -- from union halls in the Rust Belt. Buchanan's vote totals in labor strongholds like Racine, Wis., and Dubuque, Iowa, jumped dramatically between his 1992 and 1996 campaigns.

For example, in 1996 he got 8,604 votes in Racine, a blue-collar industrial city south of Milwaukee, compared to just 2,654 in 1992. The difference: in 1992 Buchanan ran primarily as a hardcore social conservative with a nativist, even racist, tinge; in 1996 he had added a broad critique of corporate greed and footloose capital that was pitched directly at workers displaced by the amoral forces of globalization.

He even told John Nichols of the Capitol Times in Madison at the end of that run that he would have enjoyed the opportunity to run in the Democratic primaries that year.

Buchanan's bolt will be a challenge to both Bush and Gore, therefore. It will give Bush a chance to show that he really is a different, more compassionate, breed of Republican -- one who won't make nice with a racist demagogue. And it will give Gore a reason to aim his campaign less at suburban, moderate women and more at the working-class majority that used to be the Democrats' loyal base.

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Can a third party be built on an alliance of hardcore social conservatives and disaffected blue-collar unionists? Yes. In some cases -- think pro-labor, pro-life Democrats like David Bonior and Marcy Kaptur -- no huge leap is required.

Of course, what happens to the economy over the next year will determine how big Buchanan's campaign will get. But to the extent that Pat gets a free ride on his past record of hate speech, and no one else emerges to speak for the people most hurt by globalization and corporate greed and irresponsibility, comparisons to Le Pen in France and Peron in Argentina will soon be in order -- if not eclipsed by his likely successes here.

There are still a couple of possible silver linings, however. One is that a Buchanan third-party run will force more attention to third parties in general, as it becomes clearer to even the corporate-owned media that the public wants more choices than Bland A and Bland B.

And finally, with Buchanan seemingly hurting Bush more than Gore (or Bill Bradley), his candidacy may liberate someone like Ralph Nader, or perhaps Warren Beatty, who might otherwise be worrying about hurting the Democratic candidate, to run hard as a progressive populist on the left. Strange and surprising things are already happening in this election -- maybe even more are just around the corner.

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Micah L.Sifry

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