Bursting Buchanan's Bubble

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by James Bemis

(James Bemis is a columnist for e3mil.com's "The Edge." This article appeared in the December 7, 2000, issue of The Wanderer.)

While, as of this writing, America waits to find out who the next President will be, there's someone we know it won't be: Patrick J. Buchanan.

One of the most overlooked campaign stories is the failure of Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan to register even a blip on election screens. The final vote (if there is such a thing) showed Buchanan with 440,469 votes, about .4 of 1% of the total. Among the minor party candidates, Buchanan lagged far behind Green Party candidate Ralph Nader's 2.7 million votes, barely edging Libertarian Party candidate Harry Brown's tally of about 375,000.

This is a far cry from the Buchanan brigade buoyancy greeting Pat's announcement earlier this year that he was joining the Reform Party. Thanks to its 8% tally in the 1996 elections, the Party's twelve million federal advertising bucks were there for the taking! Pundits talked in double-digit terms, speculating that Buchanan could cost George Bush the election. (You could still make a case that Pat did keep Bush from the presidency if he loses. In an election this close, any lost votes can be said to have cost the Texas Governor the election.) Supporters wondered if Buchanan could top Ross Perot's strong 19% performance in the 1992 election. (This Reform Party showing really did cost George Bush – senior, that is – the White House.)

So what happened?

Ultimately, it was a combination of factors, some foreseeable, some not. But the debacle does provide a few lessons for future third party candidates, should any of those hardy souls be curious enough to look.

First, Buchanan picked the wrong hot rod to drive in the race. Pat, a man of strong principles, became the standard bearer for a party without any principles. The Reform Party lacks a discernible platform, other than being for "change." But change itself is neither good nor bad – it depends what you're changing from and what you're changing to. Members might as well call themselves the "Change Party."

G. K. Chesterton said, "It is futile to discuss reform without reference to form." By this, he meant you must first consider the proper role and function of the thing you wish to reform. Consideration of first principles never seems to occur to most in the Reform Party, including those of its two foremost apostles, Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura. Yet without principles, there is no rallying point, no common theme for supporters, only popular faces. The political movement becomes merely a gigantic cult of personality.

Thus, Buchanan chose a party for the wrong reason – money – and it showed.

A nasty brawl erupted at the nominating convention between Buchanan supporters and those of rival candidate John Hagelin. Hagelin filed a lawsuit to prevent Pat from using the Party's campaign war chest, ultimately losing but costing Buchanan valuable momentum. Thus, the Reform Party left its convention deeply divided and, like Humpty Dumpty, couldn't be put back together again. Ultimately, neither Perot nor Ventura endorsed Pat. After such a dismal 2000 showing, it's hard to see how the party can field a serious presidential contender again.

Interestingly, before jumping to the Reform Party, Howard Phillips pleaded with Buchanan to run as the Constitution Party's (then the U. S. Taxpayer Party) presidential candidate, with Phillips as his running mate. But Pat, his eye on the $12 million prize, declined the offer and Phillips, one of the brightest and most articulate men in American politics, headed the ticket instead. The rest – and Buchanan's further presidential ambitions – is history.

A key opportunity for a real conservative third party may have been missed. With the eyes of the media world upon him, had Buchanan made the jump to the Constitution Party, the party would have gained instant credibility. Here was a man who beat Bob Dole in the 1996 New Hampshire primary. Here was someone that earned 37% of Republican votes in his presidential nomination challenge of George Bush four years earlier. Here was a seasoned competitor and household name.

Such a move would have energized the Constitution Party faithful and millions would have become instantly aware of an emerging third party with real, unshakable principles, faithful to the nation's founding ideals. True, Pat would have foregone $12 million in advertising money, but the free publicity would have been worth many times that.

Ah, what might have been.

Buchanan's second major error was choosing Ezola Foster as his Vice Presidential candidate. Mrs. Foster would probably be a terrific Republican contender for a House or state legislature seat, but made a weak running mate on a national ticket. She had no name recognition, brought no discernable constituency, and had no previous political experience worth speaking of. It's hard to figure what Pat was thinking of here.

Third, whatever one believes about Buchanan's quest for the $12 million Holy Grail, its advertising fruits were singularly unimpressive. The only television ad I saw showed a dying man calling 911 and no one could understand him because of language barriers. Hardly the stuff to enflame the hearts of men. His radio ads were better – Pat himself appealing to patriotism and the right to life – but seemed too little and too late.

Finally, there was the "fear and loathing" factor beyond Buchanan's control. That is, most Republicans possessed such fear of Al Gore and loathing of Bill Clinton that they felt a duty toward God and country to do whatever they could to defeat the Democratic ticket. So even those who might have listened to the Reform Party's siren song and rallied to Buchanan in ordinary times, had a moral obligation to cast their votes for the Republican Party, even when led by a candidate as weak as George W. Bush.

So now, the Reform Party lies in wreckage. What's worse, a golden opportunity to invigorate a conservative third party was lost when Pat declined to join the Constitution Party ticket. Would such a move have gained Mr. Buchanan the White House? Probably not. But it's not hard to see how he would have exceeded 0.4 of 1% of the vote, and put the tiny party on its feet. That would have been something worth cheering in this otherwise dismal election.

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