Is Buchanan a Republican or a free agent?

August 02, 1996|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Pat Buchanan is proving that he can't take no for an answer. At some point, he is going to have to decide whether he is a Republican or a political gadfly.

In the past, that has never been a problem for the conservative commentator and columnist. He is, after all, a man who came into politics as a young aide to Richard Nixon and worked in the White House for another politician he much admired, Ronald Reagan. As a commentator, he regularly referred to the Republicans as "we," making no pretext of nonpartisanship.

His own agenda

But now, with his party's convention near, he is behaving as if his personal agenda is far more important than supporting Republicanism.

Mr. Buchanan, unsurprisingly, does not see this as a personal agenda but as one demanded by his followers. Like Jesse Jackson with the Democrats, he behaves as if he were leading a movement, not simply competing for an office. But defining that movement is impossible.

It is true, of course, that Mr. Buchanan won the New Hampshire primary last winter. He also won a couple of lesser contests where his principal opponent was Phil Gramm, the flop of the year in GOP primaries. Over the course of the caucus-primary campaign, he received millions of votes, heady stuff for someone who came into elective politics as a principal, rather than staff member, so late in his career.

But it is also true that Mr. Buchanan won in New Hampshire because the mainstream Republicans split their vote all over the ballot among Bob Dole, Lamar Alexander and Steve Forbes. Once Mr. Buchanan was isolated against Mr. Dole in subsequent primaries, Mr. Dole buried him.

Prime-time Pat

Mr. Buchanan has continued to insist he is still a candidate, threatening to hold his own "convention" and now producing his own platform and refusing the offer of the Dole campaign to give him the same exposure as the other primary losers -- a five-minute video that probably would not be shown on prime-time television.

Instead, he expects the same opportunity he was given to make a prime-time speech from the podium in San Diego as he did from the podium in Houston four years ago. But the Dole campaign has not forgotten what happened in that 1992 speech, whose inflammatory passages contributed so much to the perception that the party was being dominated by right-wing extremists.

At one point Mr. Buchanan said, "The agenda Clinton and Clinton would impose on America -- abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious rights, women in combat units -- that's change all right. That's not the kind of change America needs. It's not the kind of change America wants, and it's not the kind of change we can abide in a nation that we still call God's country."

In another passage he said: "There is a religious war going on in this country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton and Clinton are on the other side and George Bush is on our side."

It is small wonder that Republican leaders don't want a repeat performance. One of their prime goals is to project an image of Bob Dole as a candidate of the mainstream of American politics, not of the extremist fringe. Indeed, some Republican professionals believe Mr. Dole can profit from taking a tough line against Mr. Buchanan in much the same way candidate Bill Clinton gained by affronting Jesse Jackson in the controversy over Sister Souljah four years ago.

But Mr. Buchanan understands the way the news media operate. He knows that holding his own events will be catnip for the television cameras when the alternative is another hour of predictable speeches.

What he has to decide, however, is whether he is still a Republican owing something to his party.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 8/02/96

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