The Buchanan Challenge

February 18, 1992

In February 1972, Richard Nixon was riding so high that he celebrated the advent of the New Hampshire primary by going off on his famous visit to China -- the one that later became the setting for a John Adams opera. He left behind two Republican challengers to his re-election, conservative John Ashbrook and anti-war advocate Paul McCloskey, both of whom were destined to be asterisks in the political history of their times.

And yet. . . And yet, when the 1972 returns came in, 32.4 percent of the registered Republicans in the Granite State voted against Mr. Nixon. Keep that 32.4 percent figure in mind when the results from New Hampshire pour in tonight. If two nobodies could get that kind of a protest vote against the pre-Watergate Nixon 20 years ago, Patrick J. Buchanan should be able to do better -- perhaps substantially better -- against a recession-plagued George Bush this time out.

One should never underestimate the penchant of New Hampshire voters to embarrass White House residents. Estes Kefauver vs. Harry Truman in 1952, Eugene McCarthy vs. Lyndon Johnson in 1968, Ronald Reagan vs. Gerald Ford in 1976, Edward Kennedy vs. Jimmy Carter in 1980 -- all mounted challenges to standing presidents who either withdrew from contention or were defeated the following November.

Perhaps that is one reason Mr. Bush is taking the Buchanan challenge so seriously. Had he been able to run for re-election a year ago, when he was hero of the gulf war and the recession was supposed to go away, Mr. Bush might have been able to be dismissive of his opponent. Instead, he is campaigning frenetically, not out of fear of losing the nomination but of losing the election.

That Mr. Buchanan is doing better than even he had hoped is undeniable. In his pugilistic style he has bashed Mr. Bush repeatedly for reneging on the "no new taxes" pledge he made in New Hampshire four years ago and for putting off the middle-class tax cut he trumpeted in his State of the Union address last month. Yet these were ready-made openings that any challenger could be expected to exploit. The Buchanan candidacy should be judged on its own idiosyncrasies.

Let's set aside, for now, his nativism, homophobia, racism and anti-Semitism to concentrate on what he calls his "new conservatism" and what others have aptly dubbed his "paleo-conservatism." Mr. Buchanan's view of the world dates back to those ostrich-like days before World War II when the Republican Party was awash in protectionism and "America first" isolationism. The GOP was later liberated from this insularity by the likes of Wendell Willkie, Arthur Vandenberg, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon -- and, yes, Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

If New Hampshire chooses to reverse the process of enlightened Republican internationalism, it will be left to other states -- not least, Maryland, on March 3 -- to put the GOP back on track.

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