TOPICS > Politics

The Race in Context

February 28, 1996 at 12:00 AM EST


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We get some perspective on this aspect of the Presidential race to date from two NewsHour regulars: Presidential Historians Michael Beschloss and Doris Kearns Goodwin. They are joined tonight by Paul Watanabe, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts and Alfred Eckes, a professor of history at Ohio University and former executive director of the House Republican Conference. Welcome to you all. Doris Kearns Goodwin, let’s talk first about Steve Forbes who won the Arizona primary yesterday. He has spent about $25 million of his own money so far on this campaign. Is there any precedent in history of the race for the Presidency that you can think of for this?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, certainly, the amounts of money are much greater than ever before, but the idea that people spend their own money on a campaign certainly surfaced before John Kennedy’s campaign. In fact, there’s this great moment when John Kennedy was able to joke later about all the charges that he was buying the Presidency by saying that he got a telegram from his father in which his father said, “I don’t want you to buy one more vote than necessary; I don’t want to buy a landslide.” So clearly there’s been that anger to some extent about people having money, but on the other hand, America is a funny country. We’re the country that people came over from Europe with the paved golden streets. They want to be rich, themselves, most people. So there’s also a sense that if somebody’s got their own money they’re not going to be beholden to special interests, so there’s almost a respect for that at the same time as people don’t get too happy about the idea that someone’s spending millions of dollars to buy their vote. So it’s very complex.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael, do you agree with that? Do you think that in this time when many people say they’re economically secure and yet some people are supporting Forbes, do you think that’s why, what Doris just laid out?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, I think the amazing thing is that there is not perhaps more resentment of a candidate with that kind of, that degree of resources and who did not perhaps earn it himself. Throughout American history, the wealthy candidates who have tended to have an easier time have been, for instance, Andrew Jackson in the 1820′s, Wendell Willkie in 1940. These are people who represented themselves as self-made me. Perhaps second in order would be candidates like John Kennedy, as Doris mentioned. Robert Kennedy spent $5 million in his 85-day campaign in 1968. Nelson Rockefeller spent similar amounts when he ran in 1964 and 1968. These were not self-made leaders, but they could at least say in Rockefeller’s case, I’ve been governor of New York, I am not just someone who is beginning at the top with a lot of resources, and the same thing was true with the two Kennedys. I think there’s been a difference in recent years, which is that for the first time in the last few years we have seen a candidate like Ross Perot and now Steve Forbes in 1996 turning this really into a plus. John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy in the 1960s to some degree had to fight a degree of resistance to them as people who were wealthy candidates, perhaps out of touch, certainly able to pour in their own resources. It’s really Perot and Forbes in the 1990s who for the first time were able to say this kind of money makes us unbought and unbossed.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Eckes, what do you think about this? Forbes is addressing some of the same economic issues as Buchanan. They’re both talking about growth or lack of growth and economic change and what needs to change. Do they represent two different approaches to economic change, the two of them?

ALFRED ECKES, Historian: I think they do, Elizabeth. In my view, Forbes would represent the neo-con wing of the Republican Party, which is oriented to tax cutting. I think it follows in the tradition of Jack Kemp, and he might well have been the candidate had he chosen to be. On the other hand, Pat Buchanan, as I see it, represents the traditional wing of the Republican Party, and perhaps is more of a McKinley-Lincoln Republican concerned about the interest, the national interest as opposed to international free trade which seems to be one of the underlining and defining features of the Forbes program, along with tax cuts. I think the, there’s going to be–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Excuse me for interrupting. You think Buchanan represents the traditional Republican Party. This is a different view than some would have.

MR. ECKES: Yes, in my review of history, Buchanan’s position on the tariff, for example, is consistent with Abraham Lincoln and every Republican from the 1860s up until the 1930s. It was after World War II that the Republican Party became a great advocate of international free trade and, indeed, in Congress, there remained a strong traditional wing led by the father of former President George Bush, Prescott Bush of Connecticut.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Paul Watanabe, do you have anything to add before we move on? We’re going to talk more about Buchanan. Do you have anything to add on this question of using your own wealth to run for President?

PAUL WATANABE, Political Scientist: Well, I think that there seems to be no consensus in the electorate. On the one hand, there are people who believe that wealth may mean that you can buy elections. On the other hand, there is this conception that if you have tremendous amounts of wealth, as has been pointed out, you can’t be bought. One thing I do think that is very clear, that if elections are, are engagements in which people have to pass a judgment on individuals, you have to be seen so that people can pass that judgment, and there is no doubt in my mind that the wealth of somebody like a Steve Forbes or a Ross Perot makes it possible for large numbers of people to see you. And that’s a very important, necessary condition before anyone can pass a judgment on you.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, let’s move on to Buchanan and so-called populism. Would you define–many people are talking about Buchanan as a populist–would you define populism for us, and do you think he fits in that category?

MS. GOODWIN: Well, I think populism traditionally has been a mass movement which somehow sees a struggle between ordinary people which they variously call plain people, real people, average people, the little guy, versus an undemocratic elite, which is variously defined as big business, international organizations, Wall Street, Harvard snobs, and what happens is that at certain moments in our history, when there’s real anxiety in the country, usually it’s a moment of economic transition as it was in the 1890′s, the farmers were feeling left out, their prices were lowering, they were having a very difficult time living. Labor was facing an economic recession, or later–we’re seeing it now, that same kind of economic hardship. There seems to be a desire for an easy answer to the problems, and the populace have traditionally provided enemies which gets people roused up, and I think what Buchanan has done has organized that felt sense of anxiety by calling out enemies. In his case, his enemies are not only international bankers and globalists and Wall Street, they’re also sadly immigrants, foreigners, the affirmative action problems, and certain–almost he’s gotten into creationism, which Bryan was in–so I think where he fits in is by identifying the problem which is real, which not all the candidates have talked about, but then by providing a kind of passionate evangelical rhetorical answer to the problem, rather than some real remedies that I think are out there, but no one was talking about. There was a vacuum because not the Democrats either, who should have been talking about these problems, had really addressed them, and Buchanan swooped right in.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Alfred Eckes, is Buchanan’s populist movement, does it remind you of any specific people in the past?

MR. ECKES: Well, this afternoon, I was reading a new book on populism by American University Historian Michael Kasan, and he makes the case that even Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln were in some sense of the world populists. They certainly identified with the common person, and indeed, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and others have taken on the bankers and Wall Street repeatedly in the past. It’s part of the rhetoric of the campaign. And I’m reluctant to see an individual candidate in the Republican Party this year as an extreme candidate. I think they’re seeking to mobilize constituencies, some of which have to be reached with code words, some of which have to be reached with appeals to Christian fundamentalism, some of whom are concerned about free trade, some of whom are concerned about the World Trade Organization. Pat Buchanan is a master of the media, having been a product of it. And in that sense, I think he is showing some of the same skills that Theodore Roosevelt used in an earlier era when he knew how to use newspapers to get out his message.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael Beschloss, as I remember from history the populists wanted government ownership of things like railroads, didn’t they?

MR. BESCHLOSS: Yes, they did. They were very worried about concentrated economic power, and on and off through history they have embraced the idea that government could help the common people perhaps get the kind of rewards from this society that they deserve. That was very much what Huey Long was saying in the 1930s with his program of “every man a king,” the idea that this was a very rich society, you should confiscate wealth from the rich and give it to the poor. There is one element of Pat Buchanan’s personal history that I think connects him very directly to the history of populism, and that is you go back to 1968. That, as you remember, was a year in which Richard Nixon ran against Hubert Humphrey, they each got about 43 percent. George Wallace, governor of Alabama, with a very populist message talking about law and order and generating this kind of resentment against elites, who had, he said, exploited the common man and woman, got about 10 percent. Richard Nixon, after the ’68 election, set about acquiring that Wallace vote. He wanted to make sure that he would be reelected in 1972, and also helped to make the Republicans a majority party. One person very much at his side during those years was Pat Buchanan. He was the speechwriter that Nixon called on to develop themes and language that would appeal to the Wallace voter, and to a great extent, I think, it was during those years that Pat Buchanan honed the kind of appeal that allows him now to appeal in a way that is rather reminiscent of Wallace in 1968.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Paul Watanabe, you’re skeptical, aren’t you, about this whole labeling of Buchanan as a populist?

MR. WATANABE: Well, I think that while populism surely is a very popular political currency, a lot of the indications in the names that have [been] mentioned even tonight in terms of individuals identified with the concept indicates that it is so overused that it’s been seriously devalued. I’m thinking just in recent times about individuals who themselves have described themselves as populists or commentators have described as populists in some way, and I think of Newt Gingrich, you think of Bill Clinton, you think of Ross Perot, you think of Ronald Reagan, you think of Jimmy Carter, you think of George McGovern, you think of George Wallace, you think of Robert Kennedy, and you think of Joseph McCarthy. Now, the fact of the matter is, is that all of those people claim the populist level. They can’t all do so, and it seems to me that it is fundamentally a pretty meaningless concept now, especially if it’s defined as has been pointed out as individuals who are in favor and support the common men and women. That is a concept, it’s oppositionless. There’s nobody on the other side, it seems, in modern politics, that would take the opposite position.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But, Paul, do you think there’s any evidence that Buchanan–Michael was just talking about the, what he learned from Wallace–do you think there’s any evidence that he’s looked at Father Coughlin, for example, or other people in the sort of history of this populist strain in American politics and that he’s learned from them?

MR. WATANABE: Well, that’s an interesting question, because in, in some ways for like Father Coughlin, or if it’s somebody–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And tell us about Father Coughlin a little bit.

MR. WATANABE: Well, he was one of the most traditional populists in the sort of the second phase of the populism in the early part of the 20th century, and this is–you know, individuals like him and many people have argued that the people who succeeded him, people like Joseph McCarthy, people in the George Wallace tradition, that these were individuals who in some respects claimed to be economic populists, if you will, but were actually radical social conservatives in economic populist clothing. That’s the kind of judgment, it seems to me, is going to be made of somebody like Buchanan. Is this in some respects a social conservative, a radical social conservative, perhaps a demagogue in some people’s view in populist clothing?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Alfred Eckes, what do you think about that, the–some people would say demagoguery–but the dark strain in general that is in the populist tradition?

MR. ECKES: Well, it certainly is with some of the extreme groups like Father Coughlin and some others.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He was anti-semitic for example.

MR. ECKES: I think that was true, but I don’t see that in the current situation. Pat Buchanan has the support, as I understand it, of some rabbis in the Jewish community. There are probably others who oppose him. I think he’s seeking a broader constituency, and my guess is over time he’ll succeed in broadening that particularly if he focuses on the deficit issue. You know, on March 15th, the continuing resolution expires and the federal government has to have new funding, and there’s a great deal of anxiety. I think if he picks up on that issue, I think he could easily broaden this constituency, running against Washington.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael, do you think that win or lose, the Buchanan candidacy will change the Republican Party?

MR. BESCHLOSS: I think it will, and the amazing thing is that anything–and I agree with Paul Watanabe that the word populism is immensely overused and one of the most amazing and ironic things is that you see someone like Bill Clinton in 1992 and people for him calling him a populist, not thinking that populism throughout history has had so many of these ugly racist and bigoted strains. But the amazing thing in 1996 is that this populist movement, if we call it that, that we’re talking about really comes out of the rib of the Republican Party. In the late 1960′s, it really came out of the rib of the Democratic Party, and I think one thing this represents is the degree to which from the 1960′s to the 1990′s the Republicans have gotten on the verge of becoming a majority party in this country.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, what do you think about the capacity of the Buchanan campaign themes to change the Republican Party or to really influence the selection?

MS. GOODWIN: Well, I think the really interesting question is maybe even more than the Republican Party is will it influence the tenor of the whole campaign in the Fall? Because it may be that by identifying these economic anxieties, which, as I said, the Democrats have really not focused on, when Robert Reich, the Secretary of Labor, used to talk about the need for some sort of social insurance for people who are losing their jobs, for health care to take care of that anxiety, for worker retraining, they used to shush him up in the Clinton administration because they didn’t want to get Wall Street upset, and they didn’t want to really get this whole balanced budget talk off the dime. So it may be that it will open up a whole debate for the general election. The real difference over time, however, that I think we’ve got to figure out is that in the past the real populist movement in the 1890′s was a grassroots movement. It was a people’s movement that then found leaders to articulate its message. The difference between Buchanan and perhaps Wallace and perhaps certainly Father Coughlin, they were people who were creating something out of whole cloth in a sense. They don’t have a lot of movement out there, people that are organized together, one another fighting for something from the bottom up. They are manipulating the media and using it in a certain sense to become a spokesman, and that’s a much less permanent kind of movement. The original populist movement had an enormous effect on the progressive campaign, on the government legislation during Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson, and that’s the hope you would have that these issues would have an effect, but not unless there’s a movement from the bottom up, and that may mean the left better start thinking about populism, as well as the right.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Paul Watanabe, do you have anything to add to that?

MR. WATANABE: Well, I think it’s true that if the assumption is, is that populism arises out of the excesses presumably of a capitalist society, unfettered capitalism, it seems to me, both then and perhaps now is going to have some serious impacts. There are going to be people who are going to be left out. They are going to be disillusioned, et cetera. The question is that–and I think that that’s the debate about Buchanan–whether, in fact, the state, the government will be a mechanism by which to control that excesses of capitalism, or whether, in fact, as Buchanan seems to suggest, unlike the early populists, in fact, government is the problem, not big business.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you all very much.