Why Buchanan Failed

The problem isn’t that Pat Buchanan has forever been stuck at 1 percent in the polls. Valiant educational efforts can be masked as political efforts and do great good. The problem is that the Buchanan Brigades were supposed to spark a new national movement, though to what end was long ago lost in the shuffle.

A fundraising letter just sent out claims that one of the goals of the campaign is to build a “new political party.” Well, going from 8% in 1996 to 1% in 2000 isn’t building. Everyone knows that the Reform Party is living off capital accumulated under Ross Perot, so there will be nothing left for 2004. Neither will there be a politically viable Buchanan movement, any more than there is now.

These are bracing truths for people who have followed Buchanan with some hope. Sadly, they are just the beginning. I recently spoke at a gathering of conservative physicians, people who have been involved in politics for many years, and have the financial means to back a 3rd party venture. I was struck by their comments about Buchanan. I listened to what they had to say, and came away with a list of reasons Buchanan has failed.

“Fear of Gore.” This factor is no small matter. The Gore regime would be worse than the Clinton administration: even more fanatically socialistic and steely eyed, with even less connection to the real America. Gore is capable of demolishing what remains of the rule of law to impose his egalitarian, environmentalist, thought-control agenda, and he is an aggressive imperialist to boot. Bush, in the old phrase, is the lesser of two evils. But a lesser of two evils is dramatically lesser when the alternative is social, cultural, and political ruin. The better years to run 3rd party were 1996 and 1992, when the stakes weren’t seen as enormous.

“Ideological incoherence.” Pat is supposedly against welfare, yet he doesn’t campaign against it. Presumably, he favors free enterprise of some truncated sort, but he doesn’t talk about taxes or regulations. Indeed, he may be the only candidate who has openly decried capitalism as an economic system, at a time when the free market is so popular that even Gore is forced to embrace it. Buchanan is presumably against foreign intervention, but no candidate is more belligerently anti-China, or more anxious to call for war (as he did recently over the USS Cole). Then he made a good statement on the Cole, and in his best speech, he attacked trade sanctions, but never returned to the theme. What to make of this hodgepodge? Most 3rd party voters tend to support a man who backs identifiable principles. Randomly pushing hot buttons is not an effective substitute.

“Protectionism.” Lord knows why he has stuck to this relentless, mind-numbing prattle about the evil of cheap foreign goods, but it has overtaken the rest of his politics and permitted the dismissal of this brilliant man as a lightweight. His protectionism long ago wrecked the chance of the business class having anything to do with his campaign. Sensing this, he tried to tap into union support, but unions make up a small if menacing percentage of workers. Even average consumers are no longer hopped up about the evil of cheap foreign goods. And just from a political point of view, the year to wail about jobs being shipped overseas is not one in which incomes are rising and unemployment running at an amazing 4 percent.

“Truck with the left.” How pathetic to see Buchanan court union support, but who can forget 1996 when doing so garnered the adulation of the media? The end result was the now-famous Thomas Friedman article heralding Buchanan’s third-wayism. This period seriously demoralized his base. As for courting the left with the antiwar cause, you can’t do that while calling for a much bigger military budget.

“Campaign disorganization.” Example: the other day, the Wall Street Journal devoted its oped page to 3rd parties. Nader and Browne milked it for all it was worth. Buchanan, though invited to contribute, didn’t turn in anything. Is this typical? Insiders in 1996 and 1992 described chaos at headquarters, money frittered away, cancelled appearances, and everyone running around like a headless chicken.

“No network.” The campaign has always seem to believe that a candidate merely had to get on television and make speeches to adoring fans. But in real life, the most important thing a candidate does is form relationships with big players among his donors and volunteer leaders. That was lacking. Nor can all campaign decisions be left to a manager.

“Burning bridges.” Talk to any former state chairman and you are likely to hear angry stories. Many believe they were used and discarded. Volunteers and even employees rarely come back for more, so Buchanan has had to recruit a fresh crop of activists for each run. There’s been no cumulative effect.

“A tax-funded campaign.” Buchanan’s natural constituency despises publicly funded campaigns. But at some point along the way, it seemed like the entire effort was to get the pot of gold at the end of the FEC rainbow. This has left the impression of a candidate on the dole. Nor are the urgent calls to get 5% of the vote so as to guarantee taxpayers’ money in 2004 any help.

“A vanity candidacy.” Unfair as it may be, especially for a TV star, some doctors believe Buchanan was in the race to garner the attention of crowds. If that perception sinks in generally, it doesn’t matter how much television and newspaper coverage he gets. People may enjoy him, but they will not support him for political office.

To his great credit, the Buchanan effort has given more prominence to the anti-war, isolationist tradition, even if he wasn’t the perfect spokesman for the cause (Mises, for example, thought protectionism was the root cause of war). And contrary to media reports, the single best thing about him is his identification with the prewar isolationists.

But he also warped some the best segments of the American right into anti-trade and pro-union thinking, not to speak of wasting time and money (close to $30 million by the time it’s over). It’s also sad to see the ruin of the great old slogan “America First,” once a valiant cry for peace, now a demand for higher taxes on imports.

On election eve, the media are going to claim that Buchanan’s failure represents the political downfall of the right. Not true. His opportunity to make a difference in American politics may have come and gone, but, according to my doctor friends, that represents only the failure of one campaign, not the better part of the ideas he once represented.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is editor of LewRockwell.com.

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