PAT Buchanan's latest primary surge has touched down like a tornado on a great stretch of Midwest flatland, leaving many in the Republican establishment astonished at how his populist message is resonating. It's a sign of how far behind the curve and how distanced from Republican voters they truly are.
Buchanan has been on message since the 1970s, which should help him secure the GOP's presidential nomination. Buchanan knows what he's talking about when he says he'll bring together traditionalists, populists and "conservatives of the heart" who aren't in the GOP, namely Reagan Democrats and disaffected independents.
Writing in "The New Majority: President Nixon at Mid-passage" (Girard Bank, 1973), the former presidential aide says of the critical mass of voters the GOP needs to win presidential races, "Socially and culturally it is traditional America, `Middle America,' as opposed to the liberal elite, the constituency of conscience, the counterculture. In terms of the old Roosevelt coalition, it is the Republican base wedded to the `Solid South,' the farm vote and half the Catholic ethnic and blue-collar vote of the big cities."
Former Washington Times columnist Sam Francis calls such voters "Middle American Radicals." Most recently, they were Republicans who went to Ross Perot because George Bush campaigned like Ronald Reagan but governed like Michael Dukakis.
What a Middle American Radical wants most of all from a presidential candidate is conviction, a sense of nationalism and an understanding of the social and economic anxieties of the middle class. Buchanan's America First appeals to them for exactly those reasons. Not surprisingly, at last year's United We Stand America convention in Dallas, Buchanan stole the show.
Still, the press discounts Buchanan's getting the GOP presidential nomination. He's too radical, he divides even conservatives, they say. But Buchanan isn't too radical if Bob Dole, the plastic man of the GOP - "I'll be Ronald Reagan if you want me to" - merrily dips into Buchanan's pouch of ideas.
Buchanan does, however, divide conservatives in the sense that his economic nationalism draws a line in the sand for Republican voters. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
With Buchanan as their standard-bearer, party members will have to choose: America as community or America as economy. Most voters will choose America as community, but will most Republicans? Buchanan's great task if he gets his party's nomination will be to shame those "economic conservative" Republicans into remembering they were Americans before they were loyal Sony customers.
However, there will be many in the GOP who won't choose America first. Sadly, too many Republicans have fallen blindly in love with economic ideology. The free market rules, they say, and as painful as it may be to the United States, Japan Inc., for example, needs our support more than Detroit. Democrats didn't stymie President Clinton's last attempt to negotiate from strength with Japan. Rather, it was the Lexus lobby that's littered throughout up-scale suburbia that did. They and their clients aren't exactly the bedrock of the Democratic Party.
So why did President Clinton cave? Because he talks to the average American, the type of person the Democratic Party claims it looks after, but likes to stay competitive with Republicans in the campaign-contribution hunt. Like Bob Dole, Clinton is a big believer in big business, particularly those - including multinationals - that cut big campaign contributions. The man already has a campaign war chest exceeding $20 million. Honest progressives can't say that's made up with mom-and-pop contributions, or solely from traditional Democratic interests.
If Buchanan gets the GOP nomination, Clinton, by virtue of numerous economic initiatives - keeping unions stupid and happy, NAFTA, GATT, phony federal workforce reductions, promises of subsidies to Silicon Valley and bailouts of Wall Street - stands to inherit all those "economic conservatives" who can't understand why Buchanan stands against what passes for free trade.
Never mind that what's called free trade isn't. NAFTA and GATT are managed-trade agreements. And already with NAFTA, our Mexican partners have disastrously mismanaged their end of the bargain.
To many Republicans, free trade has taken on religious overtones, sort of like the idea of a human-free environment has taken root with many environmentalists and worked its way into Democratic Party politics. Many Republicans are so devoted to free trade as an ideal that they'll leave their party before they submit to Buchanan's oft-misrepresented trade policy: fair trade amongst equals, and the traditional Republican notion of doing what it takes to advance America's industrial base.
Let Bill Clinton have them. As the GOP candidate, Buchanan would be severely underfinanced as corporate money rushes even faster to the Clinton campaign. But it wouldn't be long before voters caught on to that. Coupled with Bill Clinton's flavor-of-the-week political history, most voters in this populism-pulled age may just decide to vote against business as usual.
If you hear "Go, Pat, Go" urged on with more and louder voices during the primary season, don't be surprised. As Buchanan noted more than 20 years ago, the GOP had it coming. Democrats shouldn't be surprised if their current leadership gets it, too.
Jim Christie is a Seattle-based writer.