The mere thought that Pat Buchanan might find in the Reform Party a national platform for his views on trade, immigration and foreign policy has plunged the punditocracy elite into a frenzy.
The reasons for this are obscure. Its members cant really be worried Buchanan might become president, because no poll shows him drawing more than 15 percent. Nor can it beas was the case after his New Hampshire primary win in 1996that they fear Buchanan would take the Republican Party away from the corporate and neoconservative factions that now dominate it. If Pat left the GOP, his opponents would have the party to themselves; they could push for lower taxes for the rich, high immigration rates and a foreign policy of firing cruise missiles promiscuously all over the globe, without any significant opposition. This should delight the anti-Pat corps, but if the newspaper columns are any indication, theyre more worried than ever.
I think the source of the anti-Buchanan reflex is that deep down the media elites suffer from the fearone they can never afford to acknowledgethat many of Buchanans core positions are popular among both mainstream Republicans and Democrats, more popular than Buchanan himself. If he found a way to get them a hearing in the ideological marketplace, they would become institutionalized and impossible to ignore. Thus desperate to avoid anything like a straightforward contest of political ideas, the anti-Pat corps will do anything it can to distract the country from Buchanans message: resurrect all the tired attacks from the last two campaigns, utilize innuendo to ensure that the word "German," or even better "Hitler," appears as often as possible next to Buchanans name. Above all, dont let voters focus on his views. Not all Buchanan foes sink to this. At least not all the time. In The Weekly Standard, I have read thoughtful and incisive criticism (by Irwin Stelzer) of Buchanans economic positions, noting that many of his arguments were compelling andhere is faint praise for youbased on "a respectable body of economic literature." Similarly Stelzer (writing in neoconservative Commentary) has acknowledged much of the justice in the immigration reform arguments now percolating in the Buchanan campaign, and virtually nowhere else in American electoral politics.
Charles Krauthammer, a fervent anti-Buchananite, has managed to concede that Buchanan is the most intellectually stimulating candidate. But these are exceptions, published in the last year but not in the last week; all one can read now is drive-by smears. Exhibit A among many was a column by William Safire, the gifted Timesman who is on the mark three-fourths of the time. Homing in on a Buchanan Meet the Press performance in mid-September, Safire said that the candidates main appeal was to the "resentful fringes" of left and right, those who felt "cultural resentment" of Jewish connections. The idea is to link Buchanan with uneducated anti-Semites, those who dwell in the proverbial fever swamps of American life.
In the actual program in question, the discussion turned to a chapter in Buchanans recently published A Republic, Not an Empire that discussed the impact of ethnic lobbies on American foreign policy. The relevant chapter resonates with (and duly footnotes) ideas found in two essays that appeared in the fall of 1997 in the nations leading foreign policy journals. One was by Harvards Samuel Huntington, probably the preeminent American political scientist of his generation, in Foreign Affairs. The other, in The National Interest, was penned by James Schlesinger, who served in the cabinets of presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter. Both men lamented the lack of any American strategic vision in the post-Cold War period, seeing our policies now driven almost entirely by special interest groups.
You could say that their arguments are all wet. But you cant fairly claim that by pushing into the political arena the views of such eminent figures writing in the leading publications of the day, Buchanan is reflecting the "resentful fringes" of American life. It just aint so.
As with foreign policy, so too with immigration. Buchanan, who seems to be the only candidate who has given the issue the thought it deserves, has arrived at a position closer than anyone elses to that of the presidential commission appointed by Barbara Jordan. (Clinton ignored its recommendations.) It is also the view that reflects the majority of American opinion: Americans want immigration rates reduced. Again, one can argue that this position is wrong, but one can claim it is the position of the "resentful fringes" only by ignoring the facts.
How successful will the obfuscation strategy be? Perhaps if enough columnists assert often enough that Buchanans views are marginal and extremist, it will scare off people from finding out what they actually are. But communication isnt as tightly controlled as it once was: Many broadcast journalists practice balance and fairness with a sense of professional duty; the Internet disseminates all kinds of information. My guess is that the journalistic smear brigade will in the end failfail not necessarily at keeping Buchanan from being elected, for his third-party bid is a very long shot but fail at keeping his views off the table. And if they fail, the American democratic ideal will be that much the healthier.
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