There really is not much yet to say about the presidential race, except that it will be unlike anything we have seen in our lifetime. There have been serious third-party candidates in the last half century, but none like Pat Buchanan, who almost certainly has the Reform Party nomination in the bag, along with $12 million in federal campaign funds. All other third-party candidates who made a bit of difference -- Strom Thurmond (1948), George Wallace (1968), John Anderson (1980), and Ross Perot (1992, 1996) -- were “statement” candidates, out to make a point. Buchanan is a full-fledged, seven-course contender, with a platform that will rival the majors in every respect. This does not mean he will be elected President. He almost certainly will not. But it does mean that the two Establishment candidates -- who disagree on very little of fundamental importance to the course of the nation and the world -- soon will have to play off Buchanan’s agenda, whether they like it or not.
Buchanan is now polling only 5% or 6% in the polls, and if he stays there, he will not be a factor. Gore and Bush will ignore him as they have to this point. If he begins to advance into double-digits in the next two months, which is his objective, the pollsters will examine whether he is drawing votes away from Gore or Bush -- and the two major candidates then will have to calculate how they could win back what they are losing or accelerate their gains at the other’s expense. If you have ever played three-dimensional chess, with eight boards stacked up, you can understand the problems faced by the Bush and Gore campaigns in dealing with Buchanan. From one move to the next, they will have to reckon whether they will benefit by Buchanan being in the race or whether their opponent will benefit. It is conventional wisdom that if Buchanan does better than expected, he will take votes away from Bush and hand the Oval Office to Gore. There are, though, perfectly reasonable scenarios in which historians might conclude Buchanan drew votes from Gore and helped elect Bush -- who might otherwise have lost to Gore one-on-one.
The Buchanan platform, which now is becoming clearer, is not built entirely around economic nationalism, China-bashing, and a purist pro-life position. If it were, his campaign would not make much difference and could readily be ignored. There is much more to it that can not be ignored. He has several planks that not only are distinctly different from the major party candidates, but also should be very appealing once they become known to the broad electorate. His pledge to end all economic sanctions that have piled up against the rest of the world during the Cold War is one that should have broad appeal -- especially to the Catholics who usually make their political home in the Democratic Party and are currently attuned to the Pope’s travels this year on behalf of reconciliation. This is a Buchanan issue that would cut against Gore, in Bush’s favor, while also softening the hard image Buchanan has invited with his bluster in other areas. The fact that Buchanan includes Cuba as well as the Islamic nations in his appeal will have resonance among those independents and blacks who otherwise might not vote at all.
Buchanan now has formally embraced as a key plank in his Reform Party effort a call for a national initiative and referendum. Over the years, he has toyed with this idea, sometimes warm to it, sometimes cool, but his coalition-building with Lenora Fulani is responsible for his decision to make something of this very populist idea -- one the Political Establishment certainly fears. It’s actually an idea I suggested to Ross Perot in his 1992 campaign, which appealed to him, but then got lost in the shuffle. Ms. Fulani, usually described as a radical “black Marxist-Leninist,” is a pleasant, well-spoken “Marxist,” with no discernible “Leninist” leanings. Her chief interest in becoming Buchanan’s campaign co-chair is in breaking the political hold the Establishment has on the electoral process. A national initiative and referendum would enable a Howard Jarvis to put a tax-cutting Proposition 13 on the federal ballot. This would make it difficult for “read-my-lips” presidential candidates to renege on tax-cut promises.
There might seem to be a big difference between Bush and Gore on taxation. There is, though, no commitment by either to enact sweeping tax reforms and there is no commitment by Bush to cut the capital-gains tax. The Bush tax-cutting program is simply a smorgasbord of goodies, with high visible costs and trivial supply-side economic effects. Gore will attack it relentlessly as a "risky scheme" to make the rich richer and Bush will gamely defend it when it really does not deserve defense. Here is another area where a Buchanan tax initiative might force the Bush campaign to "modify" their risky scheme in order to prevent a conservative drift out of the GOP toward the Reform Party. As he has begun outlining it in speeches this week, Buchanan would set an across-the-board 15% ad valorem tariff on imports, using the funds generated -- at what is not an excessive level -- to finance vigorous tax cutting and sweeping reform on domestic income and capital formation schedules. Americans would do somewhat less trading with the rest of the world and more trading with each other. Because Buchanan turned to supply-side experts to design his overall plan, it is going to be hard for the Bush campaign to attack it. Democrats will have trouble explaining to their blue-collar workers why it is also a "risky scheme."
When noted above that Buchanan "almost certainly" will not be elected President, the "almost" allows for the small chance that he will become a better candidate in terms of coalition building than he has been thus far. In the November 15 report, "President Frankenstein," I noted: “He has a long way to go in order to stop scaring the voters with his pitchfork approach. To me, it was great news that Clinton cut a deal with China on its entry to the World Trade Organization. Pat probably will foam at the mouth when he should be welcoming China into a club that is supposed to play by the rules. There is a lot that I like about Buchanan -- especially his grasp of history, philosophy and world affairs. These attributes I would install in my assembled President. It is not necessary, though, for our President to come across like Boris Karloff. In the end, it is Pat’s tendency to play Crossfire instead of politics that would keep him in single digits.”
That still is his problem, as is clear in the memo to him I posted on our website today. He will get points as the clear anti-war candidate of the three, for not wanting to drop real bombs for the fun of it, on Kosovo or Iraq. He can be a scary figure with his finger on the trade button. Make no mistake, though; he is a serious man with a platform that in most respects is the most attractive of all. It will gain support as the broad electorate pays attention and it becomes known. He will play these wild cards right through to November, with enough money in the bank to throw a scare into the other candidates...and force both to cherry pick among his better offerings. It will be the kind of presidential race we have never experienced. It looks to be a bore now, but just wait and see.