How far will the Republican establishment descend to embrace Pat Buchanan in a desperate effort to restrain him from defecting to the Reform Party? The apparent impulse to love-bomb the bomb-thrower is perfectly understandable-even though such pragmatic maneuvering might ultimately disfigure the new image of tolerance and inclusiveness that party leaders have been striving to project ever since the impeachment debacle.
That new image is unacceptable to Mr. Buchanan, whose recent emphasis on “economic nationalism” cannot quite conceal his own more habitual and malignant prejudices. Now, with his threatened third-party insurgency, he is stirring the tensions long present within the G.O.P. into a crisis.
The conservative commentator personifies the disintegration of the Ronald Reagan coalition. While Republican leaders hope to revive the optimistic and sentimental aura of Mr. Reagan, it is the Gipper’s former communications director who most skillfully evokes the nastiness behind that beguiling smile.
That is precisely why Mr. Buchanan poses such a difficult choice for his fellow Republicans. Obviously, a Buchanan candidacy on the Reform line could lure enough voters from the Republican nominee to ensure defeat in November 2000-but a Buchanan speech in prime time at the G.O.P. convention next summer could repel the moderate and independent voters who are essential to victory.
So George W. Bush is in a political quandary. Judging from their current behavior, they believe that coddling Mr. Buchanan will make the problem disappear. They don’t seem to care that his smirking bigotry has confronted them with a moral quandary as well.
Unfortunately, most of Mr. Buchanan’s fellow Republicans have always preferred to ignore or excuse his encyclopedic offenses against decency over the years. Yet it was still startling the other night to hear Representative David Dreier-a prominent Republican of California and supporter of Mr. Bush-declare that his party’s only significant disagreement with Mr. Buchanan pertained to protective tariffs. The Congressman went so far as to suggest that there would be “a place for Pat” in a George W. Bush administration. Is there really so little difference between the Buchanan and Bush world views?
The Spanish-speaking Mr. Bush has gone far to remove the anti-immigrant taint from his party. So he surely wouldn’t agree with Mr. Buchanan that the problem with illegal immigrants “is that they are not English-speaking white people from Western Europe, they are Spanish-speaking brown and black people from Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean.” No doubt the Texas Governor is troubled when his rival expresses that view at campaign rallies by screaming, “José, we ain’t gonna let you in again!”
The appeal of Mr. Bush is supposed to extend to African-Americans, too. So he cannot possibly share Mr. Buchanan’s enduring hostility to their aspirations, which dates back to his gleeful complicity in the F.B.I.’s covert campaign against the late Martin Luther King Jr. For him, King’s crusade blighted the idyllic Washington of his youth where, as he recalled in his autobiography, “There were no politics to polarize us then, to magnify every slight. The ‘Negroes’ of Washington had their public schools, restaurants, bars, movie houses, playgrounds and churches; and we had ours.”
And no matter how badly Mr. Bush wants the support of the Christian Coalition, it is hard to imagine him echoing what Mr. Buchanan told the group in 1993: “Our culture is superior because our religion is Christianity.” Or his vile denunciations of homosexuals and AIDS sufferers as “satanic.” Indeed, Mr. Buchanan is the only Republican Presidential candidate ever to be found guilty of anti-Semitism by William F. Buckley Jr. That is a judgment he has earned not solely by hostility to Israel, as he might whine in his own defense, but by his flattering descriptions of Hitler, his emotional defense of Nazi war criminals, his complaining about the over-representation of Jews in Ivy League schools, and his incessant disparaging of New York bankers as the cause of economic distress in the heartland.
Apart from Mr. Buckley’s 1991 accusation, Mr. Buchanan has remained largely exempt from the opprobrium that he deserves. While he poses as an “outsider,” it is his status as a Beltway insider and pundit pal that has allowed him to say things that would have rightly ended any other politician’s career. According to a recent article in Salon magazine, that immunity still inhibits his opponents in the race for the Republican nomination, none of whose flacks dared criticize Mr. Buchanan when challenged by a reporter to respond to some of his gamiest utterances.
For Mr. Bush, there is more at stake here than a few percentage points in the polls. In dealing with Mr. Buchanan, he will have to ask himself soon what kind of party and what kind of nation he presumes to lead, and whether he has the guts to lead them.