Buchanan to the Left of Them

by John Nichols

The Progressive magazine


"Populism is a language and a style of organizing, not an ideology. It is left-wing or right-wing, tolerant or intolerant, and is used to build support among ordinary people against their elite opponents."

Michael Kazin, author


Which 2000 Presidential candidate launched his campaign by declaring: "Heartland industries are being sacrificed to enrich a global elite that looks on workers not as fellow human beings but as pawns in a global game of chess"?

Which candidate calls for denying Most Favored Nation trading status to China, saying: "We've got a $60 billion trade deficit with Chinese Communists who persecute Tibetans, persecute Christians, persecute political dissidents . . . paid for by surpluses they get from trading with the United States"?

Which candidate tells Iowa farmers: "The corporate establishment, the Republican establishment, and the neoconservative elites are against you"?

Which candidate tells laid-off West Virginia steelworkers: "One day, American workers will wake up and realize that their jobs [and] factory towns have been sacrificed-to save the bacon of the 'investment community'. When they do, the day of reckoning will be at hand"?

Who is this modern-day William Jennings Bryan whose economic stances The Wall Street Journal editorial page condemns as "leftist"?

The candidate is Patrick Buchanan.

In his third consecutive bid for the Republican Presidential nomination, Buchanan, who toyed with populist themes in his 1992 challenge to then-President George Bush, and who spun them into a second-place finish in the battle for the 1996 GOP nomination, is back with his most radical message ever. Buchanan still calls himself a conservative-and his "conservatism of the heart" shows little compassion for racial minorities, gays and lesbians, Jews, women, and other constituencies that have been the targets of his wrath over the years.

But on the economic issues that form the centerpiece of his uphill campaign for the GOP nomination, Buchanan is sounding a lot less like his former bosses, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and a lot more like Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader, and Jim Hightower.

Buchanan has sampled so many elements of the populist economic rap that Hightower quips, "I'm going to have to sue him for plagiarism."

The joke is really on the Democrats, however, says the former Texas Agriculture Commissioner and host of the nationally syndicated Hightower Radio program. "Instead of going after Buchanan for plagiarism, I should probably sue our Democratic Party candidates for nonsupport," he says.

On the day before their candidate announced his Presidential run in March, the Buchanan Brigades roared into Weirton, West Virginia. Home to the sprawling Weirton Steel plant, now run as the largest employee stock ownership plan in American manufacturing, Weirton represents some of the most solidly Democratic turf in the nation. Every local official is a Democrat, and the Republicans have not bothered to put up a Congressional candidate there since 1994. Bill Clinton won Weirton by overwhelming margins in 1992 and 1996, and for years a photo of him hung near the entrance to the town's Thomas Milsop Community Center. But employment at the steel mill has dipped from a peak of 14,000 to just 4,000. Clinton's failure to stop the dumping of cheap steel imports from Japan, Russia, and Brazil threatens further layoffs. His photograph has been consigned to a dusty hallway closet.

On the wall where the Presidential portrait once hung, a sign in early March read, Pat Buchanan Stands Up For Steel.

More than 1,000 union members and their families crowded into the community center to hear Buchanan tell them not to trust the leaders of either party because: "They are letting go with indifference to the heart of the country, the muscle of the country. [And] for what? So they can trade pieces of paper on Wall Street." The chants of "Go, Pat, Go!" were deafening as Buchanan endorsed the union's demand for "across the board [import] quotas on all steel and steel products." In a town where workers have felt abandoned by leaders of both parties, Buchanan's rhetoric has made him "something of a cult figure," says Weirton Mayor Dean Harris.

While Democratic Presidential candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley fight it out for a narrow strip of ideological terrain somewhere in the political center, Buchanan is moving to the left. "The only place where people are hearing a populist voice that is delivering an anti-corporate, anti-Wall Street, anti-monopoly message right now is on the right wing of the Republican Party," says former Jesse Jackson aide Robert Borosage.

"The fact that we don't have a challenger to Gore who is challenging him on NAFTA and GATT and all of these economic issues is a tragedy and a very mistaken judgment on the part of progressives," adds Borosage, who is co-director of the progressive Washington-based think tank Campaign for America's Future. "We are conceding a dramatic amount of space to the right."

Make no mistake, Buchanan is on the right. An old Nixon hand, he also served as communications director in the Reagan White House before emerging as one of the nation's prominent conservative pundits. He continues to espouse a frothy agenda of anti-immigrant, anti-affirmative action, anti-gay, and anti-women's rights positions. The man who over the years has described Adolf Hitler as "an individual of great courage," defended the Confederate position in the Civil War, characterized Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet as "soldier-patriots," and praised what he calls "David Duke's portfolio of winning issues" has hardly gone soft when it comes to hard-right dogma on social issues. Just days into this year's campaign, Buchanan declared, "[Any] Supreme Court appointments in a Buchanan Administration will be only of pro-life constitutionalists and conservatives."

"You would be hard-pressed to find another national figure who has said as many deeply destructive things as Buchanan has over the years about gays and lesbians, people with HIV, African-Americans, immigrants," says Urvashi Vaid, director of the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "Buchanan has spoken so many disgusting and divisive lies. He has expressed the most vile and venomous ideas. It's remarkable that he still is a serious candidate-but there's no doubt that he still is, especially on the right."

Often when Buchanan is sounding anti-corporate themes, you can still hear echoes of his long record of anti-Semitic statements. On the stump, he refers to the Republican Party as "the political action committee of Goldman Sachs" and says, "Real power in America is not wielded by Congress.... Real power in America belongs to the Manhattan Money Powers, the one power to which neither party is any longer to say 'No!"'

Buchanan knows that his right-wing positions on social issues are old hat in a Republican Party where every one of the eleven active candidates for the 2000 nomination expresses anti-abortion positions more extreme than those advanced by Ronald Reagan. With less money and a smaller staff than former Vice President Dan Quayle, veteran Christian right activist Gary Bauer, or publisher Steve Forbes, Buchanan could have been no more than another right-wing also-ran if he chose just to emphasize social issues. But Buchanan is not competing for space on the crowded right wing of the Republican Party.

Rather, he is moving into the wide open space on the left wing of the debate over the concentration of economic power and the globalization of the economy. With Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone's decision to give up the Democratic race because of health reasons, with House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt's endorsement of Gore, and with Jackson's decision to forgo the Presidential sweepstakes, there is no serious candidate in either party who is attacking NAFTA, GATT, the World Trade Organization, corporate mergers, or other factors that conspire to lower wages, weaken unions, reduce environmental protections, and diminish democracy.

Except for Buchanan.

Can cult-figure status in the forgotten factory towns and farm counties of America make Buchanan a contender for the nomination of the Republican Party? Even Buchanan sympathizers like former Reagan Administration aide Don Devine doubt the candidate's "heated blue-collar union rhetoric" is a recipe for success at the Party's 2000 convention in Philadelphia.

That doesn't mean that Buchanan's prospects are foreclosed. "The real impact of a Buchanan candidacy is the threat he will run as a third-party candidate," says Devine.

It is a threat that Buchanan, who came close to running a third-party race after losing the 1996 GOP nomination, refuses to reject. "On NAFTA, GATT, fast track,

l surrender of sovereignty to the World Trade Organization, NATO expansion, intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, foreign aid, and International Monetary Fund bailouts, the Republican elite is, with few exceptions, remarkably close to Clinton-Gore," says Buchanan. "Thus, the next great rebellion in U.S. politics is likely to come from without."

While Ralph Nader is making moves to launch a second Green Party bid for the Presidency that would seek to grab back some of the economic populist turf, Jim Hightower thinks there is a genuine danger that Buchanan could emerge as the most high-profile alternative to the bland center-right politics of Democrat Gore and Republican front runner George W. Bush.

The prospect that it could be Buchanan who ends up grabbing headlines with an economic populist message that cloaks a bigoted social platform frightens Vaid. His candidacy, she says, demands a response. "What Buchanan challenges the left to do is to create an economically literate movement that will produce candidates of its own. That's what we don't have, and that's why candidates like Buchanan are able to enter the void."

Hightower agrees. "There aren't too many more election cycles left for us to waste our time in," he says. "There are too many bad things happening in this country in terms of farmers being forced off the land and workers being forced out of good-paying jobs for there not to be some major and volatile reaction. If we don't get in front of that reaction in a progressive direction, Buchanan or someone even uglier will do it.

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