Buchanan 2000: What went wrong

By W. James Antle III
web posted August 14, 2000

In the glory days of his1996 presidential campaign, Patrick J. Buchanan looked at the national polls and declared, "Given the margin of error, Arlen Specter may not even exist." But the poll numbers that prompted Pennsylvania's pathologically moderate senator to drop out of the race before the first ballots were cast are higher than Buchanan's in the 2000 campaign. Yet the self-described "old troll" refuses to be roused from his domicile under the bridge.

When Pat Buchanan left the Republican Party in October 1999, he envisioned a genuine three-way race where he would draw conservatives (especially pro-life Christians) from George W. Bush, protectionist union members from Al Gore and win the Perot vote outright. For a time, this appeared plausible. A broad cross-section of the Reform Party welcomed him, even critical Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura met with him and his poll numbers were in the upper single digits – no worse than John Anderson's showing in 1980, in some cases better than Ross Perot's in 1996 and in a few approaching George Wallace's in 1968. An Arizona Republic poll showed him at 18 percent in that state, and one national poll showed him beating Ventura's preferred Reform candidate, real estate developer Donald Trump, 55 percent to 34 percent.

Pat BuchananToday, Buchanan is the nominee of the Reform Party and for the first time ever in the position to contest a general election. But his poll numbers look less like Ross Perot's than Ed Clark's, as he is stuck at 1 percent in most polls and no higher than 4 percent in any reputable national survey. He is currently in fourth place behind Green Party nominee Ralph Nader and at risk of losing the Reform Party's federal campaign funds if he does not improve this situation on Election Day. Before naming retired inner-city teacher and black conservative activist Ezola Foster as his running mate, as many as eight other vice-presidential prospects were reported to have turned him down, allegedly including Teamsters President James Hoffa, Congressman Jim Traficant (D-OH) and former Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes.

Even worse, it may take weeks of wrangling with the FEC and perhaps in federal courts to even certify him as the actual Reform Party nominee and allocate to him the attendant $12.6 million in federal funding. A band of loyalists to party founder Ross Perot – led by the party's national secretary, Jim Mangia - stormed out of the convention and declared Buchanan's opponent, physicist John Hagelin, the actual Reform nominee.

What has happened to Pat Buchanan? At his peak, he ranked with William F. Buckley , Jr. and Rush Limbaugh among the most influential conservatives in America following the retirement of Ronald Reagan. He served Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan. He wrote presidential speeches, drafted Republican platforms and attended international summits. He won three ACE awards. He was a founding father of some of television's most important political talk shows, including "Capital Gang," "Crossfire" and "The McLaughlin Group." In 1992, his insurgent presidential candidacy was the only concrete manifestation of the frustration with President George Bush that most grassroots conservatives felt. In 1996, he won three of the first four contests for GOP presidential nomination, 200 delegates and 3 million votes, finishing second only to Bob Dole.

Buchanan made a Faustian bargain for the $12.6 million in federal campaign funds that came with the Reform Party nomination. Leaving the Republican Party, for all its faults, was a questionable enough decision. It remains the party in which conservatives have the most influence over public policy. Howard Phillips was among the nation's most influential conservative activists in the 1970's when he worked within the Republican Party. When he finally completely severed his ties to the GOP, he became more marginalized and compromised his effectiveness.

At least he, however, helped create a purer alternative. Phillips' US Taxpayers' Party, now the Constitution Party, is small but it is adamant about and unified around conservative principles. It boasts among its members a coterie of frustrated conservative intellectuals and activists, including Otto Scott, Joseph Sobran and George Grant. Buchanan could have had this party's nomination as long ago as 1996 and would have at least had a party that united behind him.

Instead, Buchanan sought to build an alternative to the GOP out of coalitions and federal campaign dollars. He correctly noted that in Western Europe and Canada, the dominant conservative parties had made peace with big government and erosions of national sovereignty, and were in some cases being supplanted by more conservative and nationalist alternatives. Buchanan hoped to marry the Christian right with the Perotistas in a populist coalition, which he intended to accomplish by bringing the Buchanan brigades into the Reform Party.

The adamantly pro-life and anti-gay-rights Buchanan and his conservative supporters were a poor match for the predominantly secular, pro-choice party. Russ Verney once chaired the New Hampshire Democratic Party and secretary Jim Mangia was a (albeit fairly moderate and low-key) gay-rights activist. Press secretary Donna Donovan was openly antagonistic toward Buchanan while serving as the party's voice to the media.

Worse, he ended up a foil for intraparty divisions already in place. Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura's star power and political success was making him the dominant person in the Reform Party, and Perot's associates did not like it. Ventura and Perot were stylistically very different and not fond of one another; there two factions additionally had an ideological distinction. Ventura and his supporters wanted to strip Perot's government-reform message of its economic nationalism. They disagreed with the party's stance on trade, foreign policy and immigration, instead favoring free trade, internationalism and open borders. The two men refused to appear together at the party's 1999 convention in Dearborn, Michigan.

The Perot-Ventura feud intensified when Reform Party Chairman Russell Verney, a Perot aide, was defeated for reelection by Ventura's handpicked candidate Jack Gargan (who, ironically, had been an early supporter of the draft-Perot movement back in 1991). The faction of the party loyal to Perot urged Buchanan, who had publicly grown disenchanted with the GOP, to join. They hoped Buchanan's supporters would help them retake the party from Ventura. Verney and his associates also hoped that Buchanan, emphasizing the economic nationalism they had in common, would focus on his presidential campaign and let them focus on running the party. They figured Buchanan would at least win the 5 percent of the vote required to keep the party receiving federal funding and then they would be able to find a more centrist candidate in 2004.

Buchanan should not have gotten involved in the Perot-Ventura disputes. As evidenced by their 1996 treatment of Reform Party presidential candidate Richard Lamm, who was lured into the party only to grant legitimacy to Perot's renomination, Russ Verney and his compatriots are not to be trusted. He also should have not have gotten involved with Lenora Fulani. Yes, it may have seemed clever at the time: She led what had been the third-largest faction of the party prior to Pat's entry, as a third-party candidate who had appeared on the ballot in all 50 states she could help with ballot-access laws and as a black woman she would help his image as exclusionary. But she had a long-established career as a hanger-on, to public figures ranging from Jesse Jackson to Ross Perot to Louis Farrakahn. She hoped her ties to the Buchanan campaign would enhance her power and resigned as soon as the candidate decided not to support her for national party chair.

Once Gargan was ousted, Ventura left the party and took Donald Trump with him. Trump, who had been trailing Buchanan in the delegate count at state conventions, ended up deciding against a presidential bid entirely. But tensions within the party remained. Buchanan's supporters were getting elected to leadership positions over party regulars and pushing conservative agendas. Buchanan was increasingly vocal about his desire to transform the party more into his image, though he stopped short of calling on the party to adopt his conservative social stands in its platform – at least for this year. After 1996 Reform Party vice-presidential candidate Pat Choate, a Buchanan supporter with ties to the Perot loyalists as Ross' former running mate, resigned as acting party chair due to personal reasons, the party began to fracture again between the Perot and Buchanan wings. Choate's ineffectual replacement Gerry Moan was unable to avoid the party's breakdown.

But Perot did not seem interested in the race, saying only that might be willing to run a placeholder campaign to maintain the party's recognition by the FEC if "none of the above" won the Reform Party's mail-in primary. This option was ruled to be in violation of the party's constitution. Verney and company had succeeded in alienating Lowell Weicker, John Anderson and other potential Buchanan challengers with their shabby treatment of Ventura and Gargan. John McCain and Bill Bradley were not interested in leaving their parties. Ralph Nader preferred to be nominated again by the far more unified Green Party. Who was to be the anti-Buchanan?

John HagelinBuchanan had 14 opponents, all of whom were political nobodies. John Hagelin, who also unsuccessfully ran against Nader for the Green Party nod in his bid to become "the third-party coalition candidate," was the only one who attracted a significant following. Hagelin, to a degree remarkable even for a politician, is capable of sounding very articulate while saying absolutely nothing. He supports government-funded meditation centers and has been accused of cult ties, yet he was the only option the anti-Buchanan forces had.

Buchanan beat Hagelin fair and square in over 30 state conventions. Hagelin won only in his home state of Iowa. In the party's only binding state primary election, which took place in Missouri, Buchanan trounced Hagelin by a 10 to 1 margin. Buchanan received 64 percent of the vote in the party's mail-in balloting, carrying 47 states and the District of Columbia, and won nearly 70 percent of the convention delegates. Buchanan kept his word about not changing the Reform Party's platform, though he certainly had enough delegates to do so. Verney, Mangia and Reform's anti-Buchanan brigades still refuse to concede and will likely destroy their fledgling party in the process.

The disunity and disorder of the Reform Party, with its frequent fist fights and the need to have police break up its rowdy meetings, has detracted from its legitimacy and Buchanan's candidacy. Moreover, Buchanan was hurt by Ventura's departure and by not having a serious opponent. Had he actually faced off against Donald Trump, he would have received far more press coverage during a critical period of the campaign and not been overshadowed by the Bush-McCain and Gore-Bradley races. Nothing would have been more interesting than a Buchanan-Trump race with Perot lingering in the shadows.

Finally, Pat Buchanan must blame himself. He did not think through the implications of leaving the GOP fully enough, nor did he think beyond the FEC's $12.6 million in deciding what to do next. A principled departure is diminished when followed by a political marriage of convenience.

As staunchly and admirably conservative a ticket as Pat Buchanan and Ezola Foster are, the Reform Party is no longer a credible alternative for conservatives in this election cycle. Too many opportunities have been missed and the party is too badly broken to support a viable national campaign. Buchanan's heart is in the right place, but our heads should remind us that the contest for the presidency between Bush and Gore is more important than the race for third place between Buchanan and Nader.

W. James Antle III was a researcher for the Rhema Group. His commentaries also appear regularly in OpinioNet. You can e-mail him at Jimantle@aol.com

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