IT'S THE FRIDAY before the election, and Pat Buchanan is to hold a press conference at Essex House, an upscale midtown Manhattan hotel. The sparsely attended event begins with an aide airing a new Buchanan ad, which says it's "time to bring our troops home" and calls for building "a third party that puts America first." As the viewing ends, the circular "Buchanan-Foster" placard affixed to the lectern where the candidate will speak clatters loudly to the ground.
Moments later, Buchanan enters the room. He opens with a blast against Ross Perot for endorsing George W. Bush, charging that Perot and his "forces" have been trying to sabotage his campaign for months. For the next 20 minutes, Buchanan zings his favorite targets: the Israeli lobby, Hillary Clinton, and the media.
Neither the themes nor the problems dogging this campaign are anything new. It wasn't supposed to be this way. Coming off his insurgent efforts in 1992 and 1996, Buchanan claimed a sizable constituency of conservative Republicans and workingclass Democrats. While few believed he would ever actually be president, some thought he could pull the Republican party left on economics and right on social issues.
But it didn't happen. Buchanan, far from being a presence in the race, a la Ralph Nader, never had an impact. On the Friday before Election Day, he was mired at somewhere between zero and one percent in the polls, far behind Nader and roughly tied with Harry Browne, the Libertarian party candidate for president.
Precisely why Buchanan fared so poorly is a subject of debate among his supporters and sympathizers. Some blame his sister Bay, whose abrasive, micromanaging style prompted cries of "Madame Defarge." Buchanan himself blamed his exclusion from the debates. But the fundamental problem was that the political climate didn't suit him. He made this point succinctly in an October interview with the New York Times: "As long as we're fighting wars from 15,000 feet and not losing a soldier, when the unemployment rate is 3.9 percent, and the Dow is at 11,500 and the Nasdaq is at 5,000, it's not going to be easy for us."
He might have added that fears over immigration -- one of his central issues -- have greatly subsided. A recent Gallup poll showed voters, asked to list their top concerns, ranking immigration twelfth. That hasn't stopped Buchanan from running hyperbolic television ads on the subject. In one, the narrator says that "one candidate will do whatever it takes to keep America -- Pat Buchanan." In another, a man is shown choking on a meatball upon learning that "English is no longer our national language." He calls 911, only to hear a recording that says, "For Spanish, press one; for Korean, press two; for Bengali, press three." The ad closes with the man passed out on the floor and presumably dead, with the 911 recording continuing, "For Swahili, press 12."
Buchanan also had some bad luck. Nader became the third-party candidate the press covered, and he stole Buchanan's protectionist thunder. Further undermining Buchanan was a prolonged legal spat with dissident Reform party members over the $ 12.6 million the party was owed in federal funds. The litigation delayed delivery of the funds to Buchanan's campaign until September 14, seven weeks before Election Day, when Buchanan was just preparing to return to the campaign trail after being forced to take a month off for gall bladder surgery.
But even had Buchanan received his federal funds earlier and campaigned without interruption, there's little reason to believe he would have been much more successful. Leaving the Republican party made sense for him, given his diminished popularity and his 19th-century economics, but it also sent the message that he was washed up (Buchanan quit the GOP after his poor showing -- behind Gary Bauer -- in the August 1999 Iowa straw poll). The next time he made headlines was when he struck an alliance with Lenora Fulani, a black Marxist whose political party is often described as a cult.
The alliance with Fulani, brokered by Ross Perot's 1996 running mate, Pat Choate, was forged in the interest of getting the Reform party on the ballot in all 50 states. But as noted by Sam Francis, a columnist ideologically aligned with Buchanan, the move "sent confusing signals to some of Pat's potential supporters, and gave people like Rush Limbaugh and THE WEEKLY STANDARD lots of ammunition to use against him." Choate argues that the alliance was useful, as it helped Buchanan nail down the Reform party nomination. Maybe, but it also lent a hint of desperation to Buchanan's campaign, and led people to question his judgment.
Buchanan's choice of Ezola Foster to be his running mate heightened the air of desperation. There had been talk of selecting someone with experience in Congress, like Republican Tom Coburn or Democrat Mary Rose Oakar. Picking Foster, an obscure black right-winger from California, only trivialized his candidacy, and brought him nothing in the way of votes. ("He probably consolidated his support with the John Birch Society," quips Howard Phillips, the Constitution party's presidential candidate.)
So what's next for Buchanan? Asked at the press conference whether he planned to run again, he replied he'd decide after the election. In the past, he's compared himself to Frederick the Great, who after repeated defeats eventually won a great victory. If Buchanan runs again, the more apt comparison will be to another American political figure: perennial presidential candidate Harold Stassen.
After his press conference, Buchanan walked a half block down Central Park South to get to his minivan, and no one he passed gave him a second glance. As I waited for him to drive off, a stylish thirtysomething woman approached me and, pointing to the two-car motorcade, asked, "Who is that?" I told her it was Pat Buchanan. Her reply: "Who's Pat Buchanan?"
Matthew Rees is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.