By Ryan S. Walters
In 1992, Patrick J. Buchanan, a popular conservative television commentator who had served as a longtime aide to Richard Nixon, took on the sitting President of the United States in the primaries that year.
Party insiders considered his candidacy little more than a joke. But his 38 percent showing in the ’92 New Hampshire primary stunned the political world, and although he won no contests that primary season, he did garner over three million popular votes and forced President George H. W. Bush to shift his rhetoric and his message to the right.
No one expected Buchanan to unseat President Bush but he did showcase a winning message that resonated with a large portion of Republican voters who could not be ignored. In order to keep these folks inside the tent, the RNC gave Buchanan a prime time speaking slot at the national convention in Houston, Texas.
In his speech televised before the nation, Buchanan espoused true conservative values, spoke to those Americans who felt forgotten, mercilessly attacked Bill Clinton, and called on his supporters to stand “right behind George Bush!”
But when Bush lost to Clinton in November, with major help from Ross Perot, the establishment didn’t wring their hands over the failures of Bush’s administration, or mistakes in the campaign itself, but laid the blame at Buchanan’s feet. Had he not challenged Bush, had he not given such a “partisan” and “extreme” speech at the convention (which network news pundits believed helped Bush), independents and moderates would not have been frightened into Clinton’s camp and the President would have won another term.
Never mind the crucial fact that Bush had lied to the American people on raising taxes, or that the economy was in the doldrums, or the riots in Los Angeles, or that Clinton had waged a great campaign that successfully exploited these key issues. No, that couldn’t have had anything to do with it. It had to be the fault of the conservatives, led by the new extremist on the block, Pat Buchanan.
Despite the criticism, four years later, Buchanan, propelled by his previous success, entered a crowded field for the GOP nomination, again to provide a “voice for the voiceless,” those true conservatives who had no real leader. “We’re conservatives of the heart,” he said. “We care about the people. We will be the lobbyists for those who don’t have a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.”
Buchanan again surprised the country by prevailing in a non-binding straw poll in Alaska on January 29, winning the Louisiana caucus on February 6, and placing a close second to Kansan Bob Dole in nearby Iowa on February 12. But the big shocker came on February 20 when he unexpectedly won the New Hampshire primary over Dole in very heavy Republican turnout.
This victory was historically significant and not lost on the party establishment. From 1968 to 1992, every winner of the New Hampshire Republican primary went on to win the nomination. And since its inception in 1948, only two primary winners had failed to capture the GOP’s top prize. Buchanan was in the catbird seat.
But then the claws came out in force. Until New Hampshire 1996, he was simply an annoyance; now he, and the conservative movement, was downright dangerous. It had to be snuffed out.
The next stop for Buchanan would be South Carolina, a very conservative state that he stood an excellent chance of winning. Yet he had hardly arrived in the Palmetto State before establishment Republicans vowed never to support his nomination if he succeeded. One after the other, candidates, party leaders, and pundits ran to the television cameras to announce to all that Buchanan had no chance against Bill Clinton in November and he would not receive the party’s backing if nominated.
“The party will never unify behind Pat,” said fellow candidate Lamar Alexander. “I don’t know anybody who thinks Pat Buchanan will be the Republican nominee.”
But Buchanan, without question, would have been the best bet for the party against President Clinton. He possessed no baggage like Dole, Gramm, Alexander or any of the rest, while his message of economic nationalism, border security, and traditional values resonated with disaffected voters in both parties.
In fact, the realization of Buchanan’s path to the White House was evidenced that very cold New Hampshire night. Rarely reported were the full results of the other party’s primary. President Clinton was on the ballot on the Democratic side against a slew of unknown, and mostly local, candidates, who had but a snowball’s chance in Hell to win. The highest vote getter among them gained less than 1,000 votes. Yet well more than 3,000 New Hampshire Democrats wrote in Buchanan’s name, giving him a second place finish on the Democratic side. This frightened the establishment of both parties.
“We’re bringing people into the Republican party, working men and women,” Buchanan announced after his victory. “These are Democrats. We’re bringing them home.” He was in the process of building a nearly unbeatable coalition for November, one made up of Republicans across the spectrum but also disaffected Reagan Democrats unhappy with Clinton’s free trade policies and scandal-ridden administration. This coalition, and Buchanan’s fierce debating skills, would have been hard for Clinton and the DNC to combat.
But it was not to be. By the time the smoke cleared from the Republican pile-on, and the steamrolling of the GOP money machine, Dole had the nomination in hand. Never mind that Buchanan had publicly backed Bush in 1992; the establishment would not support him and clearly favored Dole.
Despite his second place finish, Buchanan was denied a chance to speak at the national convention in San Diego, much to the dismay of conservatives, many wanting Pat to run third party on the Constitution Party ticket. He refused and supported the Republican nominee.
Dole went on to a glorious defeat at the hands of Clinton, an outcome most everyone with a thimble full of brains knew was coming. The easily discernable bottom line of 1996 was this: the establishment GOP preferred a second Clinton term than a Buchanan victory. No doubt of that.
Even though I am alleging that this ongoing war on conservatives began in earnest with Pat Buchanan’s 1996 campaign, similar battles have occurred in the past. When grassroots conservatives engineered a draft campaign to nominate Barry Goldwater for President in 1964, the Eastern Establishment, led by Nelson Rockefeller, turned their back on him. And although everyone knew then, as well as now, that Goldwater, or any Republican for that matter, had no chance against LBJ, a united Republican Party would have kept the race from turning into a rout. But the establishment would not go along with a conservative nominee.
It’s quite likely that if any explanation can be made for the assault on Buchanan, at least from the establishment’s point of view, it lies in the fact that he challenged and ultimately weakened an incumbent President from his own party, an unforgiveable sin in establishment circles.
Yet in 1976, America’s bicentennial year, a former governor of California, Ronald Reagan, challenged a moderate incumbent President in Jerry Ford, who had taken over for the disgraced Richard Nixon. Aside from Ford’s weakness against the surging Soviets, the presidential pardon of Nixon a mere 31 days after his resignation caused initial high approval numbers to plummet. Reagan jumped into the race to battle “pale pastels” with “bold colors.”
In shades of the 2008 campaign between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Ford and Reagan battled all the way to the convention in Kansas City. But when it was over and Ford had squeaked by, Reagan stood on stage with the President, endorsed him, and gave one of the great speeches of his career. He also appeared in several television spots for the Republican ticket.
Ford’s loss to Carter was Reagan’s gain and the establishment party bosses could not hold back the surge of conservative support for him in 1980, as their handpicked candidates were no match for the “great communicator.” But the establishment had a plan to win the future – by controlling the vice presidential pick.
For Vice President, Reagan wanted a true conservative like Senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada, but he caved in to establishment pressure and named George H. W. Bush, who had been a congressman, ambassador to China, head of the CIA, and opponent of Reagan in the primaries that year.
The bosses convinced Reagan that he needed Bush for two reasons: to balance the party ticket ideologically and to gain access to the vast sums of money in establishment hands that Bush could deliver.
Both reasons are demonstrably false. Reagan could have defeated Carter with Big Bird as his running mate, and the spare change in his pocket, but he sided with the establishment nonetheless. And today we are still paying the price for that decision. Had Reagan not picked Bush in 1980, we would not have Obama today.
Consider: The Bush choice kept the establishment alive, which after Watergate and the hapless Ford was withering on the vine, as was the entire Republican Party. It was Reagan who breathed new life into it. Without becoming Vice President, Bush had no shot at the White House in 1988, and without him in the White House, son George W. Bush would likely never have made it either. It was W and his policies that gave us Obama. A great conservative Vice President under Reagan would have kept the conservative tide rising, rather than handing the ball off to the establishment.
Since Reagan, presidential elections have yielded few tangible results for conservatives. The Establishment Republican Party has had its way with the nominations in recent years – from Bush I, Bob Dole, Bush II, and Mitt Romney, to most likely Bush III or Christie in 2016, if they continue to have their way.
Conservatives, though, have had success in state races, and those for the US House and Senate, much to the chagrin of the establishment, with recent victories by Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and David Brat. But for every Cruz, Lee, Paul, and Brat there’s a Sharron Angle, a Christine O’Donnell, a Todd Akin, a Ken Cuccinelli, and a Chris McDaniel, true conservatives who faced the ire and vile of the establishment, just as Pat Buchanan did.
Anytime a true no-nonsense conservative gains traction and begins to move up, the establishment orchestrates a campaign to tear them down and withhold support. Aside from the Chris McDaniel bright spot in Mississippi, wherever that may lead, the year 2014 proved to be a wipeout for conservatives vying for the US Senate, as the Republican establishment managed to align itself with whichever devil was necessary – everyone from Democrats to the liberal US Chamber of Crony Capitalism – to beat back every single conservative challenger.
But the battle is far from over and we can never give in. Instead, we must now look for a new fight. As Pat Buchanan said in his victory speech in New Hampshire nearly 20 years ago, “Do not wait for orders from headquarters, mount up everybody and ride to the sound of the guns!”
Ryan S. Walters supported Pat Buchanan in both his runs for the Republican nomination in 1992 and 1996, and served as Mississippi Vice Chairman for his Reform Party campaign in 2000.