I've known Pat Buchanan for more than twenty years, from the days when he was a Nixon speechwriter and I was a Washington political reporter for the National Observer. In the closing days of the Nixon administration, Pat and I were among Nixon's last defenders inside the Beltway. I especially recall a solemn dinner I had with Pat and his wife Shelley, at a restaurant in the Watergate complex, just a few days before Nixon resigned. Pat was a staunch supporter of the Reaganaut supply-side movement, even in its darkest days. But, like another Nixon speechwriter turned columnist, William Safire, Buchanan never especially took the time to grapple with the economic theory. Like their mentor, Richard Nixon, Safire and Buchanan devoted themselves to power politics, almost never engaging in economic debates. Both shied away from any examination of monetary policy, which meant that neither have understood the U.S. economy in recent years as it fell into decline. In addition, this analytical weakness made them vulnerable to the critics of the supply siders, those who have argued that the Reagan expansion was bought on the cuff.
Both Safire and Buchanan had been avid supporters of Jack Kemp in the 1988 campaign; Buchanan would have run then, but withdrew his consideration when Kemp announced. During the Bush years, I've watched them drift back toward a more Nixonian posture on economic matters. In recent years, Pat has also changed his political philosophy in a surprising, fundamental way. As long as I'd known him, he'd been a democrat, with a greater appreciation of the wisdom of the electorate than Old Guard conservatives like James J. Kilpatrick or George Will. Here, the litmus test is the idea of a national initiative and referendum. In the 1980s, Buchanan was a champion of the idea, while Kilpatrick and Will opposed it on the grounds that the citizenry could not be trusted with the direct power to loot the Treasury. This was the argument used by political philosophers for millenia to denigrate the democratic idea. Pat has now slid back to this disenchantment with voters, suggesting that democracy only works when the electorate has not been "corrupted." It is this sour strand in his outlook that would kill any chance of his election. Of course, Pat's success on the hustings might revive his faith in the voters. His positions have changed so sharply over his career that Irving Kristol can say, "Some of my best friends are Pat Buchanan."
Reagan conservatives are most distressed by Buchanan's "America First" views on trade policy, as he seems to have rather suddenly abandoned the free trade positions he had espoused for 30 years. Pat, though, is not a Smoot-Hawley protectionist, but a Nixon "free-trade" protectionist. In this view, America has to protect itself for a little while in order to regain its strength, which will enable it to return to open markets. As a Nixonian in 1971, I accepted this rationale when, on August 15, 1971, Nixon suspended the provisions of Bretton Woods in order to devalue the dollar, an explicit form of monetary protectionism. At the same time, remember, Nixon imposed a 10% surtax on imports, undertaken to dam the flood of Japanese TV sets and German autos. At the time, Budget Director George Shultz called it "shock treatment." The Japanese, who had trusted the United States up to that point and ever since have not, called the move "Nixon shokku." The Nixon White House and Treasury put out the rationale, which I swallowed, that yes, this would hurt our trading partners for a while, but as we were the leaders of the Free World, it was necessary for us to grow stronger, temporarily, even at their expense. Zero sum. My unhappiness with the outcome of the policy shocks led me to investigate alternatives, which turned out to be supply-side economics. Buchanan, though, has never understood this approach at any depth and has now returned to what he does know best, Nixonomics. In his mind, "America First" means exactly that, not "America First and Last." It's a view I accept as reasonable in the sense that it is always a good idea for the physician to first heal himself. But it is not reasonable insofar as Pat thinks trade protectionism is part of the cure. Indeed, most of the ills we have in the United States today I believe can be traced to the Nixon shock of 1971. The "temporary" floating of the dollar and 13% devaluation became a permanent float and a 1000% devaluation, the consequent inflation renting the economic and moral fibre of the nation.
Nevertheless, I find myself cheering the Buchanan candidacy. I would have voted for him in New Hampshire and would continue to do so throughout the primary season as long as President Bush refuses to understand why he has failed the nation. If Pat somehow wound up with the nomination and remained Nixonian on trade, the Kemp wing of the GOP would vote en masse for a free trade growth Democrat like Paul Tsongas. In that particular scenario, unlikely as it is, Pat would almost certainly invite Kemp to be his running mate, as the only means of re-uniting the GOP. Such a ticket would be formidable, as Kemp would not accept unless it was clear to him that Buchanan would accept a reasonable trade plank in the GOP platform. I could find myself supporting such a ticket because I think Pat Buchanan is basically a good man, insensitive but certainly not racist or anti-Semitic. He's a much better candidate than I thought he would be, and he could be a better President than we now might imagine. In any case, my faith in democracy is such that I believe the best man will win.
My current hope, though, is that Buchanan will continue to force the President into reappraising his position to the point where the electorate could support him for a second term. The President's statement this morning that he now thinks the 1990 Budget Agreement was a mistake shows movement in that direction, although he could have said he regretted the harm it did to the country instead of citing the political flak it brought. The people like George Bush. At least they love Barbara and want to like him. They just don't like some of the people he hangs around with. As I have argued for several months, the President would have to clean house, bringing in a new economic team in order to persuade the Kemp wing of his party that he can be trusted with a second term. Instead, so far, the President seems to be dribbling out Nixonian crumbs, on crime, the NEA and abortion, as if a message on social policy is the one the voters are trying to send. As in the game of charades, the further away the President gets from the message, the frostier the voters will get. If the President gets mangled by Buchanan in Georgia today, the war going on inside the White House for the President's soul will break out into the open. The best thing that has happened to the President lately is the appointment of Clayton Yeutter to head the domestic policy council inside the White House. Yeutter, a hard-core Reaganaut, is the first true supply-sider named to the inner circle since Bush has been President. Yeutter's public support last week of Alan Greenspan's focus on long-term interest rates was the first such knowledgeable expression of monetary policy to come out of the White House in three years -- a subtle criticism of Nick Brady.
With the situation so fluid on the GOP side, we have to cheer on the two Democrats who are presenting positive messages. Both Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown remain within shouting distance of an economic agenda that makes sense to us. Tsongas has the attention of the supply siders because he is a free trader, opposed to Keynesian "middle-class tax cuts," and most especially because he supports a capital gains tax differential. I've listened to him for countless hours on C-SPAN over the last several months and appreciate his intuitive understanding of the direction in which the country must go. Still, he doesn't understand the issues nearly enough to satisfy me thus far. The New York Times Sunday informed us that MIT's Lester Thurow is his economic guru, which gives me the willies and perhaps explains why Tsongas remains vague on his economic specifics; he has yet to offer a detailed capital gains proposal or specifics on his national industrial plan. When the details do appear, Tsongas might look less interesting. He's begun to jawbone the Fed, for example. As for Jerry Brown, he also understands the direction in which the country must go, but still sounds like he wants to get us there on a moonbeam. A 13% flat tax is an idea whose time will come later in the decade or early in the next, I think. The voters will not take Brown seriously unless they see where he would go in 1993.
There's plenty of time left in 1992 for the candidates to sort all this out. Both parties are working to redefine themselves, which is why it all seems so much more confusing than usual. But as a result whoever wins in November will be better than what we have now, and that includes the favorite, the incumbent. The thought struck me Sunday night while watching the Democrats debate in Maryland. It came as Iowa's Senator Tom Harkin, who has been steadily sliding into the ooze, opened his remarks by accusing all four of his opponents of being supply siders! Not one of them demurred.