Bush Versus the Right - an Old Story
Buchanan's criticisms of the president's policies and leanings mirror those of many conservatives before him
COMMENTATOR Patrick Buchanan's siren call to the far right wing of his party to desert George Bush because he failed their ideological test on taxes and is suspect on other issues brings to full circle three decades of mistrust between President Bush and his critics on the right. Bush has been a target for sharp criticism from the right at times, but won grudging respect at other times. Now, as he gears up for his last campaign, Bush is once again accused of failing to meet right-wing standards.Mr. Buchanan has been joined by Louisiana's David Duke, the former Klu Klux Klan leader who's run up big vote totals by exploiting working-class resentments in several areas, especially affirmative action. Bush's tactics in dealing with his right-wing critics have varied. He tried to ignore them early in his career. Then, Bush fought them openly. Finally, he made his peace with them under President Reagan's auspices. Each time, he's played the pragmatist in his dealings with them and the odds are he'll do the same thing in 1992. Despite his problems with right-wing critics, Bush continues to have strong and broad support among conservatives, especially those who are Republicans. "Eighty percent of the Republicans are still for him," says Charles Black, a political consultant who's part of Bush's campaign team. "He's got a conservative record." Bush didn't plan a running fight with right-wingers when he jumped into politics 30 years ago; it happened by chance. On a Saturday morning in 1962, a few friends came to his home in Houston to ask Bush to run for Republican county chairman, an elective job. He agreed and asked them to stay for lunch. There was one hitch. He'd be up against a John Birch Society candidate in the primary. Bush won it 2 to 1 in what his wife, Barbara, called "the meanest campaign we were ever in." The Birchers were spreading across the Southwest and the West like a prairie fire in the early 60s, and the Eastern origins of George and Barbara Bush made them suspect. Example: Mrs. Bush's father, Marvin Pierce, was an executive at McCalls. It publishes Redbook. It wasn't long before Bush's critics on the right were pointing out that Bush's father, Sen. Prescott Bush (R) of Connecticut, was a partner in the prestigious Wall Street firm of Brown Brothers, Harriman and that Barbara's father's firm publis hed "an official organ of the Communist Party." Bush's strategy in 1962 and in his 1964 race against Democratic Sen. Ralph Yarborough of Texas was to take the hits without striking back, but they were hard to ignore. When Bush decided to take on Yarborough he was counting on help from a bitter contest between President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Barry Goldwater, the hard-charging GOP conservative from Arizona. Goldwater, Bush explained in 1966, made "a couple of good speeches down there. I didn't associate him with extremism at the time. I was looking forward to a confrontation between Goldwater and a then-unpopular liberal president. I felt it would be a great thing for Texas." His strategy died with Kennedy in Dallas in November of 1963 and Bush found himself trying to work around a new president, Texas's favorite son, Lyndon B. Johnson. He was also embarrassed by some of Goldwater's supporters, such as a Houston woman who spent her day looking for cars with an LBJ bumper sticker so she could put a little "hammer and sickle" on them. "What a wonderful contribution to our cause," Bush would later sardonically tell Texas republicans. Bush came in for criticism from right-wingers too. Typical of their tactics was an incident at a 1964 rally in Amarillo, then a hot- bed of right-wingers. A man Bush described as "surrounded by a small coterie of followers" demanded to know who loaned Bush the money to start his company. Who, the man demanded to know, owned the supply company. "US Steel," Bush replied. With this, as Bush recounted later later, "the man looked knowingly at his friends and then challengingly at me and said 'do you know, si r, that Roger Blough, the head of US Steel, is a member on the Council on Foreign Relations. Bush knew. He was also aware that in the conspiracy theories of right-wingers, the council was a prime suspect. For Bush, the final blow came when Houston's Conservative Action Committee (CAC), a right-wing umbrella group, found there "wasn't enough difference" between Bush, a mainstream conservative, and Yarborough, a fiery liberal, to justify backing Bush. He called it "incredible" and, after losing the race, launched a drive to discipline the "hard right." Texas Republicans, at his insistence, passed an "intolerance" resolution that condemned the right wing's tactics. From that point, Bush made no attempt to pacify the right wing in Texas. To counter their influence when he ran for Congress in 1966, Bush came up with a new strategy. He would concede the right-wing vote to his opponent, a young, hard-driving conservative Democrat, and target liberal Democrats. To win their support, Bush openly courted the relatively small black vote in his district. Bush's first move was to sponsor a softball team for black teenage girls and outfit them with uniforms emblazoned with "George Bush All Stars." Today, it doesn't sound like much, but in 1966 it shocked his friends in Houston. Privately, Bush didn't deny he sponsored the team for "political reasons," but by the time the season was over, the girls had won his heart. At a banquet he gave for them at the end of the season, Bush told them "win or lose, we'll have a softball team next year." Bush's outreach to blacks was carefully monitored, both by the right wing and by liberal Democrats looking for a candidate in a field of two conservatives. When Bush appeared before the CAC that year, a lady he later called "intense" rose to ask him where he was the previous Sunday. It wasn't a secret. He'd spoken at a picnic of the Negro Council of Organizations in a public park, seeking an endorsement he later received. CAC endorsed his opponent, calling him "the more sincere conservative." But white, middle-class liberals began to show up at Bush coffees. One woman said she was attracted to Bush because "he was willing to display, in public, a warm feeling" for blacks, something missing in the South at that time. His strategy worked. He won 35 percent of the vote in seven black precincts plus enough white liberals to carry the district 58 percent to 42 percent, one point better than the 57 to 43 edge he had over Yarborough in the same precincts two years earlier. Once on the national scene, Bush mixed a mainstream conservative outlook on economic issues with some noticeably liberal tendencies on social issues like the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and abortion. As GOP national chairman, he set up a Hispanic group which still plays a role in the party and, as president, he's put blacks in high-visibility jobs. Bush emerged as the "moderate" alternative to Ronald Reagan in 1980 after he'd built a resume heavy on foreign policy experience - the United Nations, our mission in Beijing, and the Central Intelligence Agency - but not so strong on domestic issues. Reagan turned into the catalyst for Bush's reapprochement with the right wing when he asked Bush to be his running mate. Bush agreed and assured Reagan he wasn't troubled by the party platform even though the GOP dropped its support for ERA and backed a cons titutional amendment banning abortion, a position Bush opposed during the primaries. Not everyone believed Bush in 1980; several anti-abortion groups refused to endorse the ticket because Bush was on it. They do now. While in the White House, Bush has had a lapse on taxes, but he's kept his word on abortion. Bush's next confrontation with the right wing will be in New Hampshire come February. Voters there might decide to send him a message that has little to do with right-wing ideology. New Hampshire's economy, like Iowa's in 1988, is hurting, and everyone remembers what Iowa Republicans did to Bush in 1988. New Hampshire is an anti-tax state. It's an ideal place for Buchanan to try out a message tailored to voters in economic trouble - circle the wagons, take care of our own, and be careful who we let in. His problem with Mr. Duke is a bit different. Duke's appeal, like his past, has a racial component that's not apt to sell as well in suburban GOP neighborhoods as it did in traditionally Democratic working-class areas when George Wallace was peddling it. The first test will be in Maryland where GOP leaders predict Duke won't do well. Consultant Charles Black says Bush's problems "are mostly driven by the economy and, if it stays bad, "we could have a close race in the fall." And in New Hampshire Buchanan "might get a good vote." Buchanan's neo-isolationist rhetoric is the kind of talk that wakes up a man with a world view. Bush has already tied Buchanan to the isolationists of the 30s, to the "America First" crowd which tried to keep us out of WWII until Pearl Harbor. Bush's quick hit on Buchanan suggests a strategy of solidifying and broadening the center with an appeal to keep the doors open for trade as a way of expanding the economy, find ways to give the economy "a kick" without making our deficit problem worse, and honor our country's commitments abroad. It's presidential in a bipartisan sort of way.