The New Hampshire event throws light primarily on Pat Buchanan even though, at only a point or two ahead of Senator Dole, his victory was nominal. The exhilaration was there, bringing to mind that of Senator Eugene McCarthy in 1968 when even though he did not defeat the sitting President, he came close enough (at 42 per cent) to electrocute Lyndon Johnson. A few weeks later, Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election. What has the Buchanan vote in New Hampshire told his own party?
This is not instantly clear, because many of his positions are also held by other contestants. Steve Forbes is not the original flat-tax man, but he is the flat tax's primary champion -- Buchanan, with this or the other modification, agrees. On turning functions over to the states and, where possible, to individuals, Buchanan's position is also that of Lamar Alexander. Senator Dole took a strong stand against the degeneracy of Hollywood and so pleased the social conservatives, to whom Mr. Buchanan speaks eloquently. Buchanan is isolated from the others on two matters, one specific, the other general. He would repeal the two treaties that commit us to free trade, NAFTA and GATT. And he would adopt an isolationist foreign policy. The other three would not.
And yet when Mr. Buchanan speaks of his candidacy he singles it out as entirely unique, a messianic episode. And there is a sense in which he is correct. These things are not up for arithmetical measurement. Suppose one reasonably predicted that on ten positions involving public issues, Buchanan and Alexander (or Dole) would vote the same way on eight. Does that make them in the long perspective indistinguishable?
The answer is, No. Because Buchanan is a figure whose persona overwhelms the political grid. In Houston in 1992 he declared that the United States was engaged in a war to the death between two cultures, the traditional and the countercultural. Many thought him correct (I do), but his tone was not that of Abraham Lincoln, but that of John Brown. The afflatus is historically distinguished and honored, and as often as not the prophet is martyred. He is seldom brought on, like Churchill, to act as leader.
There is another question, a matter of public and moral psychology. There are those Americans (again, I include myself) who believe that the isolationist temptation, both politically and economically, is a temptation most fiercely to be avoided, since its implications can be lethal. Although I do not believe for one minute that, if he were President, Mr. Buchanan would actually rush to dismantle NATO (any more than I believe that if Dole were President he would immediately balance the budget), the fact is that Buchanan said exactly that. The go-it-alone insularity is reflected in his economic nostrum for demoralized American workingmen: Blame foreigners. Charge the Japanese 10 per cent on imports, the Chinese 20 per cent.
The political conundrum looms, as such wise men as there are in Republican politics acknowledge one thing, namely that there would not be much point in nominating Pat Buchanan with the mission of dispossessing President Clinton, since that is inconceivable. Buchanan is a prophet, not a king. That being so, practical men will pause over how exactly to handle the phenomenon. The memory of George Wallace comes to mind. In 1968 his popular strength was critical: he more or less owned the South, and he had a large following among hardhats in the industrial Midwest. But the Democrats were moving sharply left just then and had no time for him or for conservative Democrats in general. He avenged himself by running as an independent candidate, securing 13.5 per cent of the vote, and ensuring the election of Richard Nixon. Wallace's followers voted Republican for the next twenty years.
The challenge is to detach from Buchanan that in his campaign which the Republican Party ought to concern itself with, and be grateful to him for giving it focus. Buchanan almost singlehandedly revitalized moral political sentiment on the matter of abortion. His call for a national acknowledgment of a common culture has as its symbol a vote against Bilingual America. His earnest suspicion of predatory government is repeated by other candidates, but they are toothless in their language by comparison. The sheer joy with which Buchanan takes his positions is -- a joy to hear. A long night with the master cheerleader.
It will end in a few weeks, and then Republicans need to hope that the idealistic imperative of replacing Mr. Clinton will generate the necessary poultices, and mobilize the common will; which requires reorienting America in the general direction fought for by Pat Buchanan.
(Universal Press Syndicate)