Pat Buchanan, unwilling to be a three-time loser in the Republican primaries, is setting sail for the Reform Party, which will make his odyssey a lot more interesting. So everyone is calling him “extreme.”
Of all swear words, this is one of the dumbest. Barry Goldwater rightly said that extremism in defense of liberty was no vice. “Extreme” is marginally acceptable as demotic shorthand for those, from Robespierre to Buford Furrow, who deny the humanity of their enemies. But it is usually used to mean, “I’m pretty sure I don’t like your ideas, but I’m too lazy to say why.” The better critique of Mr. Buchanan is that he is so often wrong.
Donald Trump and others have criticized Mr. Buchanan’s view of World War II: Britain and France should have let Hitler take Poland and fight over the spoils with Stalin; the Nazis were no threat to the United States after losing the air war in 1940. Such ideas are not the province of fascists like David Irving; A.J.P. Taylor, from the left, and John Charmley, from the right, have made similar arguments. What they and Mr. Buchanan ignore is the dynamism and danger of Hitler. Power is projected by more than air forces; style and success are influential, too. The Nazis were masters of chic, and unchallenged success in Europe would have made them all the more alluring.
In Mr. Buchanan’s new book, A Republic, Not an Empire , he invokes the prudent nationalism of George Washington’s farewell address and couples it to domestic policy. Restraint abroad, he argues, is the only guarantee of liberty at home. Washington would have agreed with Mr. Buchanan that the humanitarian adventurism of the Clinton Administration–social work with cruise missiles–is loony. But Washington repeatedly spoke of the United States as a “rising empire.” He wanted a strong, expansive country, guided by self-interest. Thomas Jefferson and his gang professed ideals closer to Mr. Buchanan’s, but in practice it was they who gobbled up the Louisiana Territory at the cost of stretching the Constitution.
Mr. Buchanan is most wrong in his devotion to tariffs. Not surprisingly, the goal of protecting American jobs by fiat has worked backward to give an anti-corporate cast to all his economic rhetoric. Markets rock and roll and destroy. We can take the bitter with the sweet, or let the President sit in the White House and pick winners with the advice of Sumner Redstone and John Sweeney.
Then there are the subjects about which Mr. Buchanan is right. Foremost is abortion. Mr. Buchanan eloquently said that the day the G.O.P. ceased to be pro-life would be the day it ceased to be his party. It’s still pro-life, but he is about to join the party of abortion supporters Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura. The second subject is immigration. Mr. Buchanan has called for a “pause,” which is the perfect way to phrase it. Immigration is neither good nor bad per se. Sometimes the anaconda of America is hungry, sometimes it needs to digest.
But how can an Irish Catholic be against immigration at all? Here we come to the heart of the matter.
Mr. Buchanan is Catholic, and his roots are Irish. But the Catholicism came from a rather recent marriage in his family, and the Irishmen from whom he descends are Scotch-Irish. This is the key to his temperament, career and campaign. The Scotch-Irish were fighters on the Scottish-English border, where they originated; they kept fighting in Ireland when they moved there in the 1600’s, and they fought Indians, each other and everybody else when they came to America in the 1700’s. Mr. Buchanan has this mindset to a T, transposed from the back country to Crossfire . He doesn’t fight to defend his ideas; he has his ideas so he can fight. It’s a great quality in a man at arms, not so great in a commander in Chief.
Many of Bill Bradley’s ideas are as wrong as any of Mr. Buchanan’s, but no one calls him extreme, probably because his speeches are as dull as death, and half as long. There was a time in the early 1980’s when Mr. Bradley looked as if he might be a quasi-conservative. He wanted to move the tax code in the direction of flatness, and he would fiddle with a matchbox to show that low rates over a broad base (the matchbox laid flat) yielded as much revenue as high rates over a base narrowed by exemptions (the matchbox standing on end). He must have left the box in a hotel room somewhere, because today Mr. Bradley is running to Al Gore’s left, and his main theme is vulgar race-baiting.
If Mr. Buchanan ever shared a podium with a convicted perjurer whose associates had burned and murdered half-a-dozen people for the sin of shopping in a Jewish-owned store, that would be truly extreme. But Mr. Bradley can rub hams with Al Sharpton, and nobody except the New York Post complains.
Mr. Bradley practices a special form of guilt-inducement, which also (sadly) became a technique of Jack Kemp’s: the athlete’s sneer. Because Mr. Bradley played games with prosperous black men in the 1960’s and 1970’s, he thinks that only he, out of all the white race, has enlightened sentiments on questions of race and poverty, and he won’t let the palefaces forget it. To this he adds his own dash of Midwestern evangelical self-righteousness. The beliefs he imbibed when he was a boy in Missouri and espoused when as a student-athlete at Princeton–he told John McPhee that he wanted to “set a Christian example”–have long flown, but the tone still comes through, clear as a cracked bell.
Mr. Bradley’s manner on race matters is arrogant, bullying and obnoxious. His notions of black degradation and white nefariousness are ignorant and patronizing. That must be why he is running so well in the New York money primary, whose constituents know blacks only as ballet dancers and parking lot attendants, which makes them perfect material for Bradley shame-alongs. The old Knick has become Old Nick, but New York still loves him.