Buchanan: Thunder On The Right

At Gonzaga High School in the 1950s, Patrick Buchanan had a reputation for never passing up a fight. If he saw two guys going at it, a classmate recalls, he would ask: "Is this a private fight or can anybody get in it?" His love of a brawl partly explains why he is preparing to take on a popular president of his own party.

Buchanan, who indicated last week that he might challenge George Bush for the Republican presidential nomination, also has a message--one that has burned its way onto the television airwaves he dominates as a conservative talk-show commentator. His "America First" plan echoes David Duke on affirmative action and welfare. But it is more far-reaching and potentially more dangerous to Bush. Buchanan would end all foreign aid, build a Fortress America through protectionist trade barriers and return America to his beloved '5Os by keeping out Third World immigrants. Buchanan, who is tapping into a deep vein of xenophobia and nativism, is an experienced hand at the politics of resentment. As a speechwriter for Richard Nixon he was an architect of the Silent Majority strategy, which peeled away Democratic voters with a cultural assault on the freewheeling '60s. As Ronald Reagan's communications director, Buchanan was the last true believer against a tide of pragmatism. Yet Buchanan does not speak for all conservatives. His born-again isolationism made him a lonely critic of the gulf war. Bush will paint him as a throwback to Robert Taft, hardly a hero in the modern GOP.

Buchanan's rock-hard conservatism could play well in the granite state. New Hampshire's sluggish economy creates the climate for a protest vote. Five banks have closed in the last year; newspapers are routinely filled with foreclosure notices. Buchanan would have the backing of the Manchester Union-Leader, even though Bush has courted Nackey Loeb, the newspaper's right-wing publisher.

There are few Jewish voters in New Hampshire, but Buchanan will have to fend off charges that he is anti-Semitic. In his typical bare-knuckles style, he quipped last year that Capitol Hill was "Israeli-occupied" territory. And he has engaged in some Holocaust revisionism. In a column last year he argued that hundreds of thousands could not have been killed at Treblinka.

Buchanan's more general list of grievances extends to Bush's compromise on civil-rights legislation and his failure to push prayer in the schools. His threat makes some conservative Bush supporters privately gleeful. Pressure from the right is likely to force Bush to propose a tax cut before his State of the Union address in January. It guarantees that Bush will veto family-leave legislation, anathema to the right. For Buchanan this is only the beginning. Like Reagan, another broadcaster who made good, Buchanan fancies himself the prophet of a new age of conservatism. At 53, he hopes that even if he loses this round he'll be back to fight another day.