Patrick Buchanan: another incumbency challenge? On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

November 18, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — THE REPORT that Patrick Buchanan, the Nixon and Reagan White House speech writer/political operative turned columnist, is considering a challenge to President Bush for the 1992 Republican nomination is in keeping with the history of protest politics over the last 40 years.

Buchanan, who has been fiercely critical of Bush as an ersatz conservative, would join eight notable political figur over that period -- five Democrats rand three Republicans -- who ran against incumbent presidents of their own party. All eight lost, but five or six of them had a serious impact on the outcome of the presidential election in which they were involved.

In 1952, Democratic Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee defeated President Harry Truman in the New Hampshire primary, and 18 days later Truman announced he would not seek re-election. Kefauver eventually was bypassed for the Democratic nomination in favor of Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois, who was trounced by Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in November.

In 1968, two Democrats, Sens. Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota and Robert F. Kennedy of New York, challenged President Lyndon B. Johnson, and he also withdrew. McCarthy jolted LBJ by winning 42 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote to the president's 48 on a write-in. Robert Kennedy jumped into the race four days later and two nights before the Wisconsin primary Johnson announced he would not seek re-election.

McCarthy beat LBJ in that primary but Kennedy defeated the Minnesotan in Indiana, Nebraska and California (losing to him in Oregon). Their competition enabled Vice President Hubert Humphrey to capture the Democratic nomination without entering any primary. The candidacies left deep intra-party wounds, contributing to Humphrey's narrow defeat by Republican Richard M. Nixon in November.

In 1972, two House Republicans challenged Nixon in the primaries -- John Ashbrook of Ohio from the right and Pete McCloskey of California from the left. Nixon whipped both of them in New Hampshire. McCloskey quit three days later, came back in and was trounced again by Nixon in Massachusetts, as was Ashbrook. Neither had mustered sufficient opposition to cause any trouble for Nixon, and he breezed to re-election over Democratic Sen. George McGovern in the Watergate year.

In 1976, former Gov. Ronald Reagan of California took President Gerald R. Ford into the GOP convention in Kansas City before being defeated. Reagan's strong challenge, and his failure to give Ford vigorous support afterward, were viewed by many in the party as contributing to Ford's narrow loss to Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Finally, in 1980, Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and, briefly, then-Gov. Jerry Brown of California challenged Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination. Carter won, but not without party dissension that undermined whatever chance he had to beat Reagan.

Right now, it appears unlikely Buchanan or any other Republican would pose a serious challenge to Bush's renomination. Buchanan's popularity among his party's right wing, however, and his criticisms of Bush as a betrayer of Reaganism and conservative principles, could undercut the president's support on the right in a year in which the stagnant economy could make him vulnerable to the Democrats.

In New Hampshire particularly, where the economy is in bad shape, many Republicans despise Bush's White House chief of staff and their former governor, John Sununu, and might use a Buchanan candidacy to expressing their ire.

Buchanan considered seeking the Republican nomination once before, in late 1987, when the siren call of the right also reached his ears. In the end, he decided against running on grounds that the "only certain and predictable consequence" would be that he would "mortally wound" the candidacy of fellow conservative Jack Kemp, now Bush's secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

As a columnist and big-money operative on the lecture circuit, speculation about a presidential candidacy certainly cannot hurt Buchanan's asking price. So letting it go on for a while is good business, whether or not it's good politics. Like others who have taken on incumbent presidents, the task for him would be formidable, but a challenge predictably would tug Bush more to the right, and add spice to a dull Republican pre-convention period.

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