The Fifth Horseman

On Pat Buchanan and the man in the wings

IT'S ONLY A matter of days since Bob Dole rose from the dead to vanquish the Great Satan of the Fortune 500, and already I miss Pat Buchanan. I spent the better part of one afternoon last week poring through the archive of Buchanan's columns on his web page to find a suitable epitaph for his campaign. Any of the following passages would do:

"Enough is enough," he wrote after the 1995 Mexico bailout. "For once, let the idiot-bankers of Wall Street and their duplicitous Mexican clients bail themselves out. If accountability is good for welfare mothers, why isn't it good for Wall Street?" Of the same deal he later added, "Conclusion: Real power in American is not wielded by Congress. Few members have any idea what is going on. Holler 'The markets will crash!' and a panicked Congress will pass a $50 billion bailout and go back to squabbling over pennies for National Public Radio."

Regarding NAFTA, he wrote this: "What, after all, is America? Is she just a part of the global economy, or a beloved country the unique character of which must be preserved? What is an American? A consumer or a fellow citizen? Is a worker a unit of labor, or one of the family?... Of late, some of our brethren of the Right have come to exhibit a near-monomaniacal obsession with economics, an almost religious faith in its ability to solve the crises of the spirit and the dilemmas of the heart. But there are higher things in life than the bottom line on a balance sheet, or being able to buy Hong Kong suits at the cheapest possible price. Community and country are two of those things."

Yes, we all know what kind of country he wants--one in which most people, including most Republicans, do not want to live. But you need not endorse his vision of the "higher things in life" to think this is a salutary point of departure for a presidential campaign. Buchanan added two things to the race. He stated the obvious, forbidden truth of contemporary life: that the vast majority of the American populace is slipping and faces even worse in the future under present policies. (It's ironic, in this light, that Buchanan has been so thoroughly skewered for "isolationism" and all that it connotes in the way of retrograde consciousness. A day before the New Hampshire vote, a visibly bemused Bob Dole admitted his surprise that the economy had become a big issue in the campaign--proof, if you needed it, that there is no isolationism quite like the isolationism of Washington itself.) Second, by daring to claim that there are more important things than bottom lines on balance sheets, Buchanan highlighted for a moment the real ideology behind the supposed "end of ideology": namely, market dictates über alles. Anything that can be justified in the name of short- to medium-term corporate balance sheets is good, or at least a point for further discussion. Anything that cannot is dismissed or slated for, ahem, reform.

Again, you need not believe that Buchanan--certainly no friend to labor, or for that matter to the very concept of the minimum wage--has the right answers to think he was pulling the debate in a useful direction. There is an enormous critical mass of people for whom his economic populism, like that of Jesse Jackson, touches a very deep chord. So Pat's a nut, and Jesse has the color barrier to contend with; there is no harm and considerable good in showing others the possibilities residing with these issues. With Buchanan's fade the state of Main Street America will likely vanish from radar again, give or take the token rhetorical gesture from Clinton and Dole.

Or maybe not. It seems unlikely that Buchanan will trudge on into the general election as an independent, having said repeatedly that he doesn't want to be the man who gets Clinton reelected. But there is a wild card. Lurking behind him is the specter of Ross Perot, forgotten but not gone and well-credentialed to take up Buchanan's anti-NAFTA cudgel. "In many ways Perot benefits from sitting back and watching Dole and Clinton hammer at each other," points out Jackson strategist Steve Cobble. "He can afford to stay out for a while. He doesn't have to raise any money; he only has to qualify for the ballot, and that's already going on in a quiet way. All he really has to do is get started in time to have a competent-looking convention, a media event really, by August or September."

And then what? "The conventional wisdom is that this would help Clinton. But the dynamics of a three-way race could get weird. If Perot spends all his time talking about jobs and workers losing ground, the group that's most likely to respond to that might be former Democratic working class voters in the Midwest--and those states are going to be battleground states. You could end up with a situation where, in the close states, he costs Clinton more than he costs Dole. Not in absolute votes nationwide, but in terms of the electoral college, where it counts."

Perot or no, proponents of the lesser evil theory of politics will spend the next seven months attempting to rally the troops round Clinton, but there's no denying the element of poetic justice in the fate Cobble outlines. Then, too, there are scant grounds for claiming that Clinton is the lesser evil. He and Dole are as much ideological soul mates as any presidential combatants in memory. Despite what the Christian Coalition may want to believe about their new standard-bearer, Dole is as canny an accommodationist as the incumbent; he'll screw Ralph Reed before he'll stray from the middle of the road.

The lesser evil is an entirely fatuous notion at this point. Bring on Perot, I say. He'll enliven the debate and put a few more flesh wounds in the two-party corpus. The alternative is a Clinton/Dole race whose only drama would lie in seeing how many voters the two of them in tandem could drive from the ballot box altogether.

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