Patrick J. Buchanan has dropped all pretense of trying to wrest the Republican presidential nomination from George Bush unless, he ominously says, "celestial intervention" alters circumstances. His stated goal now is simply and expansively to capture "the heart and soul" of the GOP in anticipation of a battle royal in 1996.
While his Bush-bashing has been an unmitigated success, giving Mr. Buchanan the opportunity to establish a national political network with a huge and lucrative mailing list, the TV commentator has two problems: First, he is not Barry Goldwater. Second, he is not Ronald Reagan.
Mr. Goldwater launched the conservative movement in its modern form in 1960 and is still, today, dotingly admired by a generation now graying and paunchy. He won the nomination four years later, lost the election and shifted the Republican rightward so decisively that GOP liberals are extinct. Mr. Reagan challenged an incumbent GOP president in 1976 and went on from there to win the presidency twice and the adoration of post-Goldwater conservatives forever.
While Mr. Buchanan would love to become the new Mr. Conservative, we doubt that is his fate. Universally loved in the movement he is not. His anti-Semitic, anti-black, anti-gay, anti-immigrant innuendo is not the stuff of a political philosophy that has emerged from cultism to lead the country. His turn toward isolationism and protectionism is contrary to the foreign policy that has prevailed in the Republican Party since World War II.
Mr. Buchanan's personal divergences are not the only reason why he will not assume unquestioned conservative leadership as easily as did Messrs. Goldwater and Reagan. The movement has burgeoned to become nearly identical with the Republican Party itself. As such, it is prone to the internecine warfare that comes naturally to so large a political organization.
Although the remnants of Eisenhower-Rockefeller liberalism can be dismissed, Mr. Buchanan cannot so easily ignore the hostilities he has invoked within the conservative camp. He is anathema to neo-conservatives, to Reaganites loyal to the Bush administration, to libertarians wary of his authoritarian tendencies, to tough-minded interventionists and, naturally, to those who also covet the 1996 GOP nomination. On anyone's short list are Vice President Dan Quayle, Housing Secretary Jack Kemp and former drug czar William Bennett.
Wild cards in all this speculation are the intentions of Senator Goldwater and President Reagan. So far, they have kept their true feelings about Pat Buchanan to themselves. But it defies the imagination to think Mr. Buchanan's instinctive bigotry will be acceptable to Mr. Conservative I or his Fortress America mentality would pass muster with Mr. Conservative II. Who is to be Mr. Conservative III is blessedly still up for grabs.