September 22, 1999
TERENCE SMITH: In the past few weeks, Republican presidential candidate
Pat Buchanan has been making the rounds on the Sunday morning television
talk shows, putting out the word that he may soon jump the GOP ship.
PAT BUCHANAN: We are taking a hard look at leaving the Republican nomination
run and running for the Reform Party nomination. The decision has not
been made yet.
TERENCE SMITH: This is Pat Buchanan's third presidential run in 1992,
he ran a close second to then President George Bush in New Hampshire,
and later stole the spotlight at the Republican convention with a speech
whose hard-line conservatism surprised even some Republicans.
PAT BUCHANAN: There is a religious war going on in our country. It
is a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the
Cold War itself.
TERENCE SMITH: Buchanan ran again in 1996, and beat Bob Dole in the
New Hampshire primary; it was the high point of a campaign that fizzled
in the later primaries. Now Buchanan is eyeing the nomination of the
Reform Party, founded in 1992 and funded by billionaire Ross Perot.
Perot so far has not publicly endorsed any candidate for the 2000 run.
Privately, aides say he favors Buchanan. But the route to the nomination
will not be smooth. The Reform Party's leading elected official, Minnesota
Governor Jesse Ventura, is hostile to both Buchanan's conservative views
on social issues and to his potential candidacy.
GOV. JESSE VENTURA: Pat Buchanan I don't believe is necessarily a good
fit because Pat Buchanan puts social issues on the front burner.
TERENCE SMITH: Ventura reportedly has been contacting possible alternatives,
including the actor Warren Beatty, former Governor Lowell Weickert,
and more recently, real estate tycoon Donald Trump. Buchanan's flirtation
with the Reform Party has coincided with the furor caused by his controversial
new book, "A Republic, Not an Empire." In the book Buchanan,
analyzes the U.S. role in foreign affairs and takes some typically incendiary
positions. He questions, for example, whether Hitler ever intended to
attack the United States, writing: "
After the Royal Air Force
won the battle of Britain, the German invasion threat was history."
Buchanan also repeats earlier criticisms of the pro-Israel lobby, writing:
"After World War II, Jewish influence over foreign policy became
almost an obsession with American leaders." The book has revived
questions within the media about whether Buchanan's views approach anti-Semitism.
He was questioned this week on CNN's crossfire by Republican host Mary
MARY MATLIN: What do you think it is about either your presentation
or what you produce in print that raises these accusations, as has been
the case day after day, show after show, that these charges of anti-Semitism
PAT BUCHANAN: Well, first let me say, look, there's not a trace of
bigotry in that book and there's not a trace of bigotry in my heart
toward any individual or group of individuals. Pat Buchanan all of a
sudden may break through and get a Reform nomination to be President.
Now, good old Pat, oh, my goodness, and all this garbage and stuff like
that is thrown at you. The idea is to stop me and smear me and tell
the Reform Party people, "you can't take him, you can't take him."
TERENCE SMITH: Buchanan's views have him once again front and center
in the national news. He concedes that he courts the attention.
PAT BUCHANAN: Well, I benefit from the fact that I am controversial
and I do have high name recognition, for good or ill, and I take controversial
TERENCE SMITH: It's that high name recognition that could make him
an attractive candidate for the rank and file of the Reform Party. Buchanan
has said he will decide by October 15 whether to run for the reform
nomination, and the estimated $13 million in federal matching funds
that comes with it.
TERENCE SMITH: For more on the Buchanan saga, we're joined by three
veteran political journalists: Thomas Edsall of the "Washington
Post," Elizabeth Arnold of National Public Radio, and Ron Brownstein
of the "Los Angeles Times." Welcome to you all. Tom Edsall,
let me begin with you. Explain to us why Republican Pat Buchanan is
or may be running for the Reform Party nomination.
THOMAS EDSALL, Washington Post: Pat Buchanan for two elections was
able to be Mr. Conservative. He was the guy who challenged Bush first,
almost caused a lot of problems and really caused his defeat you could
argue. He did the same thing to Dole. And he was the center of attention.
In this election he has really faded. He's competing with about three
or four others, Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes, Dan Quayle, all
for the same conservative mantle. He's not doing well. The Reform Party
offers him a chance to get into the general election as a full-fledged
candidate to be in the debates possibly, to have $12.6 million, which
he's never seen before. And he would be facing two candidates where
he would be the one opposed to the two of them on trade, immigration.
He would be the one popularizing the event. This is just the kind of...
this guy loves to be in the fight, and this would put him right in the
TERENCE SMITH: Ron Brownstein, if that's the logic of it, what are
the prospects, what are his chances of getting the Reform Party nomination?
RON BROWNSTEIN, Los Angeles Times: Well, handicapping the Reform Party
presidential primary is a little bit daunting task because the Reform
Party itself is kind of a permanent floating crap game. What it is as
any given moment is not what it was six months ago. But with that caveat,
Buchanan begins with two principle problems and three principle assets
in doing this. The problems are that on some issues he is simply not
a good fit for the parity. It is silent in its platform on social issues,
and many of its leading figures tend to be pro-choice. He is, of course,
staunchly anti-abortion. Secondly, he has Jesse Ventura, as your piece
mentioned, the leading elected official in the party, sort of searching
for a tag team partner, somebody to go into the ring against Pat Buchanan.
Warren Beatty has already said, no, he's not going to run for the Reform
Party nomination. Donald Trump and Lowell Weickert are the liveliest
possibilities he has at this moment. It's not clear whether either of
them will get in either. The assets Buchanan have are also formidable
though. As you mentioned, Ross Perot through his running mate in 1996,
Pat Choate, his running mate, is actively... Pat Choate is actively
supporting Buchanan. Many read that as a sign that Perot wants him in.
Secondly, Buchanan's economic nationalism message, his protectionist
message on trade is broadly in tune with the party, certainly where
Perot and Choate took it in '96. Finally, the rules of this rather Byzantine
rules of this election process for the Reform Party nomination benefit
a candidate like Buchanan. The electorate is an amorphous concept in
the party. Anybody that asks for a ballot in 2000 will be allowed to
vote in their "primary." That means a candidate like Buchanan
who has an existing mailing list of 250,000 or so names has a great
advantage, because he can simply mail to all of his supporters, many
of whom may not go with him because they're Republicans, but many of
whom might. They can then request a ballot. He can in effect stuff the
ballot very legally. That puts pressure on anyone who wants to run against
TERENCE SMITH: Elizabeth Arnold, what do you think? Is there a logic
here, and does it make sense from the way you see it?
ELIZABETH ARNOLD, National Public Radio: Well, I think it's sort of
hard to assess what the Reform Party really is, as Ron was pointing
out. It sort of gives new meaning to the phrase big tent. When you think
about the candidates that they're all talking about, Ralph Nader, Lowell
Weickert, Donald Trump, Pat Buchanan, think about the differences between
Pat Buchanan and the party's highest elected official, Jesse Ventura
- Pat Buchanan opposes abortion, opposes gay rights, opposes free trade,
opposes immigration. Ventura is for abortion, he's for gay rights, he's
for free trade, he's for legalization of marijuana, legalization of
prostitution. Put that up against Pat Buchanan's moral crusade of the
last two election cycles and you kind of wonder, what is this party
really about. And at this point, it's really more about personalities
than it is about a set of issues. And so they're embracing Pat Buchanan.
TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask Tom Edsall that. I suppose that the Reform
Party has some concerns here, too. It wants to do well and preserve
its matching funds.
THOMAS EDSALL: The main thing that Reform Party people want is to get
to the next election with more money flowing and to do that, they have
to get at least 5 percent of the vote. That's one of the appeals that
Buchanan has, that he would break that margin, whereas Trump or Weickert,
that's a big if. Jesse Ventura wants to have a lot of money, as much
as he can have in the pile there so that if he decides to run five years
from now, he will be well financed in that bid.
TERENCE SMITH: So perversely, he actually has an interest in Buchanan
THOMAS EDSALL: Actually, I think he's got more interest in Buchanan
from his own personal point of view. Plus the Reform Party is both,
as Elizabeth and Ron are saying, it's a vehicle, not a party. It's like
a car, who drives it is just who has the keys and turns the engine.
TERENCE SMITH: Ron, if in fact he does run for and obtain the Reform
Party nomination, will that make him a major player in the general election?
RON BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think he will be a player because he will have
$12.5 million. He could be in the debates. He is s a very effective
campaigner. The underlying climate I think is less conducive to a third
party challenge than it was when Perot first ran in '92. Then you had
higher unemployment. You had a very high percentage of Americans saying
they thought the country was in a wrong direction; now you have a lot
more economic satisfaction, a lot more general satisfaction. It's going
to be, I think, harder to make the case that we need something outside
the two-party system. It may be hard for him to go beyond what Perot
did in '96, which is about half of what he did in '92, which is where
Buchanan is polling now. But even that could tilt the balance in the
electoral college especially in the number of southern and mountains
states that Democrats will have trouble competing in a two-way race.
If you bring down the margin you need to win because a third party candidate
is pulling away some of those votes, they come back into reach potentially
TERENCE SMITH: Would that make sense to you, Elizabeth? Would it hurt
perhaps a Republican candidate more than a Democrat?
ELIZABETH ARNOLD: That's the conventional wisdom, that if he runs as
a social conservative, that hurts the Republican candidate; if he runs
in the other direction and preaches economic nationalism, which is what
he's done very successfully in the last two elections, that hurts the
Democrat. But as Ron pointed out, I think it's really important -- this
election cycle is very different. People are telling pollsters they
don't want change, and they're not looking for more choices. I was with
Buchanan in Michigan blast month, and you know, he used to get all these
folks unemployed auto workers who were anti-NAFTA. They would have huge
rallies. Well, those guys didn't turn out for some of these rallies
because they're all employed now. So the situation is really different
in terms of his base, and his base in the Republican Party is shrinking,
and I think his base among Reagan Democrats has shrunk as well.
TERENCE SMITH: Tom Edsall, what about the statements he's made in his
book and on these talk shows recently, the controversy around them --
has that made it a more difficult sell for the Reform Party or Pat Buchanan
THOMAS EDSALL: He has created a real problem for himself with this
argument that the United States should have stayed out of World War
II, at least through 1941 and on into 1942 and perhaps through the whole
thing. That is just not an argument that's going to sell. It's a complex
argument he's developed in his book, but you can't make complex arguments
in political campaigns. He was on for an hour on a show today, and the
whole show was really about this. And you start getting veterans on
these shows, and they don't like it.
TERENCE SMITH: They're not happy I'm sure. Ron Brownstein, would you
think this would have an effect on him and a related question, does
the press go easy on Pat Buchanan? That allegation has been made. If
another candidate said anything like that, a George W. Bush or an Al
Gore, he'd really feel the fire.
RON BROWNSTEIN: I think the answer is yes but not necessarily because
Buchanan is part or has been part of the police. I think we almost have
parallel presidential races developing, Terry. We have candidates who
we think might actually be president, that we hold to one set of standards
and who we scrutinize very carefully. Then we have the field being increasingly
cluttered with lots of people who are using this as a vehicle to project
their views and who use it as a platform to make their case to the American
people. But very few people are actually ever going to be president.
Those are sort of let slide in a way. I mean, we're not examining them
in the same respect or dealing with their comments with the same level
of gravity. You know, this is a classic case. Pat Buchanan did not need
to reopen the issue over whether Charles Lindbergh should be rehabilitated
in 2000. This is not really a pressing issue for many Americans: Was
Lindbergh right in saying whether America should have stayed out of
World War II? He's opened a problem for himself, but not as great a
problem as if someone like George Bush or Al Gore had said it, because
we are not applying the same standards for the candidates where there's
sort of an informal consensus, this guy will not be president in all
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Thank you, Ron, Elizabeth, Tom. Thanks very much.