The Washington Times

It is entirely rational for Republicans to be afraid of an independent Patrick J. Buchanan presidential bid as the Reform party candidate and for Democrats to find the prospect cheering. But what’s in it for Patrick J. Buchanan?

It’s important to take Mr. Buchanan seriously. I think those now urging Mr. Buchanan to stay in the GOP aren’t doing so. Mr. Buchanan has a clear view of America’s role in the world and what the U.S. government should be doing. This view is entirely at odds with the establishment GOP view – which is to say, with the party’s dominant conservative view.

When members of the dominant GOP school urge Mr. Buchanan to stay, they are essentially inviting him to reach the conclusion that the differences he himself has gone to such lengths to articulate and elaborate are not as important to him as all that. Mr. Buchanan claims to have reached answers to the fundamental questions about American interests at home and abroad. In his own description, these are matters of great urgency, even life and death. In the long run, American survival is at stake; in the shorter term, the legitimacy of the American polity.

What would it mean for Mr. Buchanan to lose the nomination but stay in the party and endorse a candidate whose views he regards as inimical to American interests? Mr. Buchanan has already explained at some length that on the issues he thinks are most important, namely trade and foreign policy, there is little difference between Democrats and Republicans. For all the partisan gamesmanship Democrats and Republicans engage in, Mr. Buchanan’s description of the two parties’ underlying agreement here is correct. Why should he subordinate his deepest convictions on American national interest to GOP party interests?

As for those who urge Mr. Buchanan to reach the conclusion that on a host of matters, he is closer to the GOP position than to the Democratic position, and therefore he should support the GOP candidate lest things get worse than they otherwise would, their premise may be right, but the conclusion doesn’t follow. If Mr. Buchanan can’t win now, but is serious about seeing his view win eventually, he might prefer a Democratic victory; it might hasten the arrival of the moment at which Americans repudiate the Democratic-Republican view and embrace Buchananism.

In fact, if Mr. Buchanan does bolt the GOP, his political salience past November 2000 actually depends on the Republican nominee losing the election. Mr. Buchanan is, after all, a second candidate on the right side of the political spectrum. It’s true that he is not “conservative” in the current orthodox sense of that term, but he is clearly a man of the right. Surely, he has attracted no discernible following on the left. If the orthodox conservative candidate, i.e., the GOP nominee, is strong enough to win the presidency despite Mr. Buchanan’s best effort to fracture the right, then Mr. Buchanan and his ideas look like a fairly marginal political presence.

More interesting still is what happens if Mr. Buchanan does manage to deprive the GOP of the White House. The essential question about Mr. Buchanan has always been whether he really wants to try to change this country’s politics or whether he is content merely to sound off on the subject. If it’s the former, and if he wins his first victory in the form of a GOP presidential loss, his next challenge is to consolidate a Buchananite political bloc on the right. That means a bloc of real public office holders- not wonks, gadflies and hangers-on.

Perhaps he can use the Reform Party to do this. But that would be quite a challenge, as there are few incentives for Republicans to bolt to join him. A more plausible approach is Mr. Buchanan’s reentry into the GOP, having established that it cannot be rid of him and cannot win without him. He then fights one congressman and senator at a time to reshape the party in his image.

I have not so far seen much evidence that Mr. Buchanan is willing to undertake the grueling and ugly political task of remaking a political party, an ambition worthy of an FDR or Ronald Reagan. But even if he is unwilling to do so, he can still make life difficult for the GOP next year. Twice, Democrats have won the presidency without a majority. This will be a golden opportunity for them to try again and possibly enough to compensate for a weak candidate.

As for Republicans, Mr. Buchanan has picked a serious fight with the GOP. It is grossly imprudent for Republicans to assume he will simply give it up. Mainstream, conservative Republicanism is going to have figure out how to beat him.