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Jewish World Review Sept. 21, 1999 /11 Tishrei, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Buchanan v. Bush? Yeah right -- "I CAN'T BELIEVE that Pat Buchanan will allow his ego to get the better of his conscience," former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour said this week, hopefully. But it looks as though that's exactly what is going to happen.

Faced with humiliating rejection on his third try for the Republican nomination, Buchanan is throwing sour grapes at the GOP and getting set to bolt to the Reform Party.

He charged on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday that the GOP nominating process is "rigged," that the GOP had suddenly become a "Xerox copy" of the Democratic Party, and that he is "strongly" leaning toward running for the Reform nomination.

You can understand why he'd be tempted to bolt: the Reform Party is entitled to $13 million in federal matching funds; instead of oblivion, it offers Buchanan a new national podium, and there's a chance he might force his way into next fall's presidential debates.

In other circumstances, the anti-establishment Buchanan might oppose the idea of taxpayer-funded federal hand-outs to politicians, but he's not complaining now.

That may be hypocritical, but in other respects Buchanan is totally sincere: He genuinely believes that his nativist, isolationist, "America First" ideas are right for the country and capable of winning majority support, even though every evidence indicates he's wrong on both counts.

Unless a Vietnam-like foreign policy disaster befalls the country, it's likely that a majority will continue to support the world leadership role that's been U.S. policy since World War II.

And the defeat of Republicans in California after their leaders adopted a militant anti-immigrant stance indicates that this aspect of Buchanan's case won't sell either, especially in an expanding job market.

Even more self-deludedly, Buchanan also believes that, with him at the helm, the Reform Party could replace the GOP or the Democrats as one of the nation's two dominant parties.

Such a thing hasn't happened since Republicans displaced the Whigs over slavery in the 1850s, and "globalism" isn't a nation-defining issue like that.

Moreover, it just isn't true that Republicans and Democrats are carbon copies of each other.

They are rhetorically centrist at the presidential level, but the likely gridlock in Congress over tax cuts, Medicare and Social Security reform, guns and health care will produce plenty of debates in 2000.

Whether Buchanan can even get the Reform nomination is not clear. Buchanan has the support of Reform founder Ross Perot's 1996 running mate, Pat Choate, but Perot's own preference is still unknown.

Buchanan apparently will have to fight the reigning Reform superstar, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who opposes having an anti-abortion social conservative as the nominee when the party's dominant culture has been libertarian.

But if Buchanan does get the nomination, how much damage can he do? Republicans are naturally worried. Buchanan has had a strong following on the right fringe of the GOP, and polls indicate that he would draw far more votes from Texas Gov. George W. Bush than from Vice President Al Gore.

According to a Schroth and Associates poll, in fact, Buchanan's entry wipes out Bush's current 16-point lead over Gore. In a Luntz Research poll, Buchanan gets 6.6 percent -- enough to bring Bush down from 54 percent to 47 percent of the vote, but leaving him with a 14-point lead over Gore.

There's reason to think Buchanan's pull will be considerably smaller than Perot's was in 1992, when Perot drew 19 percent and arguably cost Bush's father the election, throwing it to Bill Clinton.

That was a year when the country was just coming out of recession, when the government was facing huge deficits, and the public was deeply dissatisfied with the incumbent president's handling of domestic economic policy and dubious about Clinton's character.

Though Perot carried not a single state, his vote arguably switched the majority from then-President George Bush to Clinton in 20 states with 198 electoral votes, enough to swing the election.

But in 1996, Perot got only 8.4 percent and may have made the difference in five states. Even if Republican Bob Dole had carried them, Clinton would have won.

Buchanan is a better speaker than Perot, but he is currently pulling only 3 percent of the GOP primary vote. If Bush offends backers of Gary Bauer, Dan Quayle, Alan Keyes and Steve Forbes, Buchanan might pull 10 percent of the GOP vote away. Bush will be at pains to nominate an anti-abortion running mate.

But Buchanan will lose some of Perot's support because of his social views, his attacks on Jewish influence over U.S. foreign policy -- he once declared that U.S. involvement in the 1991 Gulf War was the work of the Israeli Defense Ministry and its "Amen corner" in the U.S. -- and a historical take that blames World War II on Britain, not Adolf Hitler.

In a very close race between Bush and a Democrat -- say, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley -- Buchanan would be a threat to the Republican. Bush's job is to keep a big lead and remind Republicans that the next president probably will name three new Supreme Court justices.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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09/07/99:Airport rage increases, with good reason
09/02/99: U.S. future up for grabs in 2000
08/31/99: U.S. Capitol needs visitor's center -- soon
08/24/99: Will 2000 be the year of the foreign crisis?
08/19/99: Neither party has upper hand for '99
08/17/99: Ford gets freedom medal one month early
08/12/99: There's time to catch Bush, say Gore aides
08/10/99: Rudy, Hillary try much-needed makeovers
08/09/99: GOP must launch new probe of Chinagate
08/02/99: Pols blow fiscal smoke on budget surplus
08/02/99: One campaign reform should pass: disclosure
07/27/99: Gore leads Bush in policy proposals

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