Springtime for Buchanan

by Sidney Blumenthal | March 9, 1992

On the afternoon of Lincoln's birthday, George Bush triumphantly entered the Bedford Mall, accompanied by his handlers. His young advance men tried to get the crowd to chant "Bush-Quayle, Four More Years," but they had no takers. Most of these shoppers had come to see a president. Some had come to tell him of their troubles, with a peasantlike attitude that if only the king knew what his subjects were suffering, he would make it all well. One woman thrust her unemployment benefits booklet at him, which he autographed without glancing to see what it might be. It was a crystallizing moment.

The primary had the feeling of an awakening about the nature of the Bush presidency—a popular acknowledgment of Bush's drift and artifice. His State of the Union address, billed as the most significant of his tenure, but which only degraded his banality, with forced echoes of the Gulf war, had failed to halt his erosion within the Republican electorate. In New Hampshire the severity of the slump had made the voters concerned above all about the candidates' specific programs for getting out of it. Bush's campaign was a parody of the others'. He hastily contrived a series of disconnected proposals so as to be able to say that he had "a plan." In order to frustrate the Buchanan message of sending him a message, he stole his phrase, urging the voters to "send a message" to Congress—to pass his "plan." To show that he knew the reality of the recession, he said: "The message: I care." At the Goffstown Mountain View Middle School, the president play-acted the man in the arena, taking what appeared to be canned questions from a Republican crowd ("Are you for term limits?"). It was a demonstration of the art of the ersatz. Goffstown was a kind of Potemkin Village. At the conclusion, Bush announced a "surprise." From the wings came bounding Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Terminator himself, emblem of strength. "Send a message to Pat Buchanan," he said. "Hasta la vista, baby!"

Patrick Buchanan, renowned Washington pundit, lives in the city of his birth and has inhabited a self-enclosed conservative universe that has paid him handsomely to chant the catechism. He has never descended into the Metro. He began his campaign by running against Bush as a betrayer, the ancient right-wing theme that always explained why its pure vision had not been realized. Buchanan believed his formulas had meaning in practical politics. He arrived with a dogmatism, but not a program.

On Valentine's Day Buchanan made an appearance at the Capital City Diner in Concord, a restaurant adorned with retro kitsch. "Welcome back to the fifties!" was inscribed on a neon-ringed clock at the entrance. Old magazines and advertisements from the 1940s and 1950s were on sale. Buchanan was here in the paradise of the past he wished to restore to meet an unemployed woman who recounted her tale of woe for him. Strangely, he was beginning to run as a candidate of compassion. The tourist in America was actually seeing new sights. His ads were filled with talk about the "suffering" he had seen. He was sounding like Hubert Humphrey at full bleeding-heart throttle. His program contained aspects of social welfare that were to the left of not only Bush but Paul Tsongas. Bush had never before encountered a threat from the right that maneuvered on the left.

Bush's passive campaign was hardly aberrant; it was entirely in the pattern of his presidency. He expected that all things would remain equal, that the status quo was eternal. When the earth began to turn, he was stunned, as always, and began to improvise reactively. Then, after disaster struck, his fear about being perceived as weak surfaced as panic.

New Hampshire is a place of special terror for Bush. It was here in 1980 that he was publicly humiliated by Reagan. In 1988 the vice president, expecting to glide above the others because of the obeisance that would be naturally paid to his office and his right to hold the next one, was shocked in Iowa by Senator Bob Dole. Bush then threw himself into the hands of Lee Atwater and Governor John Sununu, who directed the clubbing of Dole into insensibility.

This time Bush finally ran the campaign he wanted. He was the president who had won the wars and would win the primary on loyalty and royalty. The underlying assumptions were gratitude and deference. None of the wealthy older men atop his re-election committee, who had all achieved a certain distinction, was eager to dirty himself. Negative ads about Buchanan were in the can to air, but Bush vetoed their use. Deigning even to recognize the existence of the coarse commentator was granting him too much presidential attention.

It was an advance man's campaign: it existed only where the candidate was. When Bush was absent from the state, there was no campaign. The Republican Party, in the towns, is used to being organized into committees, which is what Reagan systematically did in 1980. Buchanan grasped this and reconstituted many of the old Reagan groups. Bush did virtually nothing.

During his few exchanges with the economically battered, who tried to seek help, or even a comforting word, the president expressed a blithe Hooverism (or Reaganism): that there was really nothing government could do. His steady indifference was his main message beyond the display of the trappings of power. In New Hampshire Bush was unaware of the lowering of three legacies upon him. First, of course, was Reagan's, which ensnared him in economic difficulty and then provided a gloss of rationalization for his inactivity—a legacy Bush was charged by Buchanan with abandoning. But there were two, less obvious legacies that were undermining the president. In 1980 Bush had won New Hampshire—and the key to the nomination—with the arm of Sununu. Sununu had claimed to be the architect of a "New Hampshire miracle," an economic boom that was in great part a spillover from the neighboring "Massachusetts miracle," managed by his archrival Michael Dukakis. When the Massachusetts miracle collapsed, Dukakis was completely crushed beneath it. Bush had no idea that he was grappling with the same conditions that had destroyed Dukakis.

Buchanan was riding the discontent created by the policies of the man whose true heritage he claimed to represent. But in his first experience in direct campaigning as a candidate, he swiftly cast off the ideological core of Reaganism, which was left to Bush, who was unfairly maligned for treason. Faced with a lower middle class in revolt against the effects of a decade of Republican rule, Buchanan shifted. He became the American version of a National Front strongman. Government was no longer the problem, but the solution, the agent of national renewal, the custodian of the soul of the nation, which he saw in romantic, racial terms. (In his 1977 study of a similar phenomenon in Britain, The National Front, Martin Walker writes of the "soft Nazi.") Virtually overnight, Buchanan's rigid conservatism transformed into a kind of authoritarian "socialism."

Elsewhere, Bush was not the only candidate imploding. The Vietnam War was a seminal event in Bill Clinton's political education, but he had assimilated it and moved on. Bob Kerrey, on the other hand, was still trying to cope with his wounds. He claimed at one point that Vietnam was not an issue in the campaign, but at other times he spoke at length, without any prompting, about his amputated leg. "No one can question his patriotism," went a line in one of his ads. His issues were remarkably unfocused, except for health care, which appeared to be more than an issue. He began asking crowds, "What about Bob?"—an unfortunate reference to a comedy about a psychiatric outpatient. Kerrey ran ads he then attacked—the first candidate to conduct a negative campaign against himself. In the final days he turned up at the glass pyramid-shaped Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in Concord for a small rally. He was digressive and baffling. "I don't know how many of you have ever seen The Wizard of Oz, which takes place in Kansas, just south of Nebraska. Dorothy clicks her heels and says, `There's no place like home.' It won't be that easy for us."

The hard road back was the theme for Paul Tsongas, for whom the campaign was a culmination of his recovery from cancer. "I came from a disadvantaged home—they were Republicans," he told a crowd. His mother had died of a lingering illness when he was a young boy, and he worked in the family dry-cleaning store in Lowell. Tsongas was an ethnic raised on the Yankee virtues of work and abstemiousness, made especially potent by the drive for upward mobility and assimilation. In this respect, Tsongas was exactly like Dukakis, another Greek-American born into a striving Republican family. Tsongas was active at Dartmouth in the Young Republicans. He went into the Peace Corps but remained a liberal Republican. His early job in politics was as an aide to a Republican congressman. The party, however, turned rightward, and Tsongas, with the classic Yankee combination of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism, turned Democrat.

His battle with cancer profoundly reinforced in him the flinty values of the old New England. His booklet, "A Call to Economic Arms," is an explicit extrapolation of his own dire cancer treatment to the economy: "My story is my own but there are millions of Americans who have had to learn the same lesson in countless other personal crises. Avoidance of hard truths makes the inevitable dealing with them all the more difficult. And what is true for individuals is also true for nations." He rails against "happy talk" and in favor of "pain." His industrial policy is offended by pleasure, especially shopping. It is the position of the Rockefeller Republican, where George Bush, the New England Yankee, might be if he had followed in the footsteps of his father.

In his manifesto Tsongas devotes no pages to the salience of race. He is a man of the 1950s who was not engaged in the struggle for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Pages of his pamphlet are filled with exhortation for the "Progressive CEO," namely his clients in his capacity as a corporate lobbyist, which is his profession. All that's missing from his prescription is any sense of the agonizing politics of the Democratic Party. He just wants everyone to take their medicine. At a rally of the elderly, he admonished, "It's been too easy. People know it has to be tough."

Unlike Dukakis, Tsongas has a genuine wit. He is a master of self-deprecating humor, making him seem ideal as a foil to Letterman. His humor points to his weakness, which is physical and political. And in a way, it serves his cause. Tsongas is seen as beyond politics, a figure of integrity and virtue. He also has a superior air. His very demeanor of weakness, the weak chin, the Elmer Fudd inflection, the anxiety of watching someone who's recovered only recently from a serious form of cancer, fits the image of what in the nineteenth century was the figure of the tubercular victim, whose pale wasting was seen as having a spiritual dimension. I watched Tsongas swim at the Concord Y, stripped down to his Speedo and goggles, surrounded by the press, perched at the pool's edge. "The word cancer frightens people," he said after dressing. "So I have no choice. You have to deal with it. This is a way of saying that to people.... I'd rather be attacked than be patronized." Tsongas has enormous dignity, but his demonstration of fitness only made him appear vulnerable. In every Democratic primary, someone fills this role of the hopeless moral figure, whose morality is dependent on being hopeless. If he were not weak, it would be hard to portray him as virtuous, which is his greatest strength.

Mario Cuomo's write-in fizzled; he was defeated without ever entering the race properly. Kerrey, Tom Harkin, and Jerry Brown are stumbling as though they were Japanese soldiers who have lost the war but are still fighting it from their caves.

The dramatic story in New Hampshire, however, was the stunning of the president. "It doesn't matter what New Hampshire does," wistfully remarked Robert Teeter, the president's pollster, the day before the balloting. But Buchanan's shocker guarantees that he will have the money and troops to carry on through the GOP convention. His victory here vaulted him from a marginal, if inescapably loud, figure on the right into its pre-eminent force. This marks the sharp end of Reagan conservatism. William F. Buckley Jr., the key personage within the conservative movement that led up to Reagan, misplayed his part as gray eminence disastrously. Initially, he assailed Buchanan for anti-Semitism in an interminable article in National Review. Then he endorsed him, offering the justification of tactical voting. Buchanan's victory is a whirlwind within the movement. The neoconservatives, who had climbed aboard the Reagan ship of state and are Buchanan's sworn foes, are landless and might do well to book berths in a steamer to a distant port. The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, the think tanks in Washington, the neoconservatives cheerfully advising Dan Quayle—none of them has Buchanan's legitimacy. Only he has received actual votes.

"Somebody's going to have to get dirty," said a Republican operative close to the Bush high command. Bush proved in New Hampshire through his laissez-faire campaign that he has no true following within his party. His contrived "plan" was weightless as an issue. He has no recourse but to shatter his ties with the congressional Democrats by making vituperative personal comments about the leadership in order to rouse the GOP base. By that tactic, however, Bush will destroy his ability to accomplish anything this year, an indispensable part of his claim to leadership. And he will have to move decisively to his right—and campaign against his own administration. It will not come easily even to him.

At the same time, Bush must now also run a vicious negative campaign against the ultimate negative campaigner, alienating his party's hard core. And what vicious things will Buchanan do in response? Any effort by Bush, under this pressure, to provide a shred of "the vision thing" will appear only as sheer expediency. (Perhaps the GOP should turn to an authentic moderate like Paul Tsongas.)

Whether Bush wins his nomination or not, he has no idea what Republicanism might mean. Buchanan emphatically does. Though Bush will undoubtedly win primary after primary, the imperial president who glories in foreign policy must trudge through the states, like Walter Mondale in 1984, trying to patch together a broken coalition. The commander-in-chief has stumbled into a new war against a new enemy. To rescue himself now, candidate Bush might well have to tear his own party apart.

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