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The Republican Implosion

After the New Hampshire primaries, Robert Dole had to go back to trudge his stony path, denied the joys of the victor but permitted the escapee’s sigh of relief. Pat Buchanan’s jacquerie had horridly lit up the regular Republican estate with burning barns; even so, its manor house stands singed, damaged but not yet sacked and ruined.

Defeat is, of course, always an embarrassment, however tiny its 1 percent margin. But even the triumph of anyone else is a portent of catastrophe when Dole, shield of the old Republican order, Buchanan, tribune of the rebellion against it, and Lamar Alexander, symbol of such order as vaguities may be taken to represent, each ends up with roughly a quarter of an electorate’s votes.

The Republicans can only writhe in their torments through to November and to one of those disasters that now and then fall upon every political party and leave it with no consolation except their history of impermanence. Nominate Dole, and your best hope is to avoid the worst that was Landon vs. Roosevelt, 1936. Nominate Buchanan, and you virtually ordain Goldwater vs. Johnson, 1964.

Nominate Alexander, and you must get ready for Mondale vs. Reagan, 1984. Senator Eugene McCarthy once said that Walter Mondale was born to be a vice-president. That remark was unjust to Mondale; those curious to see a vice-president ready for the bloom would better look to Alexander, who seems planted to flourish that office’s indignities from the very seedbed.

Nothing could have more luridly illuminated the agony of the Republicans than the taunts and hectorings of Democrats who came to New Hampshire to shoot the wounded. On their way to do their part in a Bisquick pancake-flipping contest the day before the primary, Alan Keyes, Bob Dornan, and Steve Forbes, transitory candidates all, had to pass through teemings of Democratic pickets chanting in unison, “Four More Years.” Of all three words calculated to reduce tender spirits to tears, the lachrymosting are “Four More Years.” The Republicans invented that slogan to crow over Democrats ground under their heels in the Nixon, Reagan, and the first Bush campaigns. Now the Democrats have their turn for torturing the soon-to-be-subjugated; and the impulse now as then is to cry out, “Don’t shoot; the poor fellows are dying.”

The President showed up in New Hampshire some days before the primary to waste his day on a mixture of virtuous preachments with wicked mockeries of the stricken. He traveled through roses, roses all the way; and vast throngs roared with gratitude when he listed his achievements as the Family Leave Act, more money for Head Start, and the Volunteer Corps. Never had gruel so thin been piled with such towering dollops of whipped cream and cherries and been so zestfully gobbled up. But then Bill Clinton owes his current majesty not to who he is but to who he thankfully isn’t.

No one has more acutely summed up the case than Dole did at the contenders’ debate when he said, “I am proud of the Republican Congress.” When he bestowed that tribute, his eyes seemed dead to everything but the horror of the memory of all the times he had stood at bay with back to the sea and hands upheld to keep Newt Gingrich’s lemmings from plunging over the cliff.

The Republicans rose to fall. They took the treasure of both houses of Congress and have left it dross after thirteen months of prodigal splurging with the nonsenses of ideology and the incoherences of clouded purpose. Gingrich’s freshmen, who shone with promise for Dole in January 1995, needed no more than the year into 1996 to dinge him with their blight. His profession as legislator has been ruined by these amateurs, and now his hopes as a candidate have been shadowed first by Forbes, an amateur, then damaged by Buchanan, a semiprofessional, and now endangered further by Alexander, three-peat minor-league player of the year as secretary of education, governor of Tennessee, and president of its state university.

Pat Buchanan has converted himself into an incarnation of mortal danger because he raised up the gun-obsessed, the right-to-life-possessed, and cheated whites no longer satisfied to have their angers distracted with the rages against worse-cheated blacks. As he put the case with wicked mockery, Buchanan brought the peasants with their pitchforks to the very gates of established Republicanism.

The regular Republicans have been profiting from the discontents of such people since Nixon showed them the way. But such people were only commodities to be employed with disdain. And Buchanan enjoys the immense spiritual advantage of genuinely liking them.

A visitor stopped by his lair in New Hampshire, and, as usual, we met like professional wrestlers in dressing rooms between counterfeits of ferocious combat. Buchanan does not look like a savage god or like any god whatever unless it be the Buddha outlined in the middle-age fleshings of his head.

He was putting the primaries behind him and, in the incense of illusions, had already commenced to canvass the Electoral College. How, he inquired, could Ross Perot not support him “when I was with him all the way on NAFTA?” It seemed cruel to suggest that agreements on issues are but as grass beneath the tramplings of two elephantine egos in conflict.

But to have gone all the way with someone is for Pat Buchanan to have engraved a duty to stand henceforth at his right hand. That code bound him to defend Larry Pratt, his campaign co-chairman and executive director of the Gunowners of America, after the revelation that Pratt had been peddling his elixirs to the Aryan Nation.

The week before the primary Buchanan had declared that Larry Pratt had been with him four years ago when no one else was and that Pat Buchanan would be with Larry Pratt until the last dog died. Let as forget how little social distinction is represented by the Gunowners of America, whose membership ought in justice to be open to the Dalton Boys, Trigger Burke, and Sammy (the Bull) Gravano. Let us remember instead that one ancient and almost as anciently unremembered rule of the old politics was “Stand by your own scoundrels.”

It requires, to be sure, a considerable moral inertness to cherish a man who trafficked in Pratt’s obscene fashion and to detest anyone who has exposed him. All the same, Buchanan’s defiance rang with refreshingly archaic dignity in a public life where the Doles and the Clintons could batten off the ingenuities of financial advisers and then shamefully abandon them when prosecutors waxed too wrothful.

But has ever a bad boy done as much mischief to his elders as Pat Buchanan has to settled Republicans? He writes his own speeches and invites the press to watch him craft his own ads. He can range from the coarseness of promising to appoint Hillary Rodham Clinton as “vice” into the refinements of quoting T.S.Eliot. He can summon up every barbaric yawp in American political history from the Know-Nothing Party to Huey P. Long and season it with jokes culled from the inspirations of that very morning’s news wire. No candidate is so out of date and none contrives to sound as up to date.

Contending with him was like wrestling with the Tar Baby for Dole, whose style has been over-refined by decades of adjustments to senatorial courtesy. The ultimate effect of the equal time principle is to license the pygmy to feel like a giant and to reduce any full-sized man to feeling like a pygmy. No one in the lists except Dole has come with the extensive experience with large affairs of state that was once considered a requisite for governing. But now we are in the Realm of Chaos and it is an uncomfortable place for any remnant of the old, lost order. We can only reflect upon the Republicans with some sadness for all the unhappy experiences that await those who go too far in disdain for experience.

Dole, wracked and storm-grieved, may yet bring the great fish home; but, when he does, the sharks will likely have stripped its flesh down to the bones, and its skeleton will be all he has to show to the shore.

February 22, 1996

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