CLIP THIS COLUMN. Put it somewhere safe. If Pat Buchanan wins the Republican presidential nomination, bring it to the Boston Common at high noon -- and I'll eat it.
Buchanan's 1 percent margin of victory in New Hampshire last week was as weak as his grasp of economics, but from the extravagant reaction it triggered, you'd think he flattened his competition. "This is a tsunami," gasped CNN's Bernard Shaw. "A stunner," declared Dan Rather.
Hardly. Buchanan's 28 percent showing was the most unimpressive Republican primary win in New Hampshire history. His "great New Hampshire victory," as he was calling it Wednesday, racked up 8,000 votes fewer than his New Hampshire defeat in 1992. Turnout for the Granite State's GOP primary was the highest ever, and Buchanan's vote dropped. That's a tsunami? (Dole's vote, by contrast, jumped by more than 10,000 since his last New Hampshire appearance in 1988.)
Reagan conservatives spooked by the prospect of a Buchananite takeover of the Gipper's party can stop gnawing their fingernails. It isn't going to happen. Buchanan's formula of high walls, high tariffs, and high dudgeon is like an electric car -- it can't go very far, and most people won't buy it.
At the heart of the coalition forged by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and extended by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s was an uplifting message of strength, growth, and goodness. Those who belong to the coalition pursue numerous ends -- from locked-up criminals to intact families to lower taxes -- but they agree on one fundamental means: less government. Nearly everything the state touches, Reagan emphasized, it worsens. It is too big, too expensive, too arrogant, too corrupting. Get the government under control -- off people's backs and out of their pockets -- and once again it could be Morning in America.
The conservative coalition delivered back-to-back landslides for Reagan in 1980 and '84, and for Bush in '88. It abandoned Bush in 1992 after he betrayed the Reagan legacy (with massive government growth and a giant tax hike); the result was the most brutal defeat of a sitting president since William Howard Taft. Two years later, the coalition reassembled around Gingrich and the Contract with America -- a manifesto of explicit, Reaganesque, less-government conservatism -- and Republicans swept into office at every level.
In short, the recipe for GOP victory is clear: Unite the Reagan coalition behind a positive platform of smaller government and greater liberty.
Buchanan is doing the opposite.
He talks envy, not growth; acrimony, not optimism. His signature proposals -- on immigration, on trade -- would make government bigger and taxes higher. Wafting through the Buchanan message is the whiff of authoritarianism, not the breeze of freedom. It's Reaganism with a chip on its shoulder -- and without the good cheer. It's conservatism of the hardened heart; twilight in America.
The Republican Party has shown an impressive capacity for stupidity over the years, but there is no chance it will anoint Buchanan its standard-bearer. He is not running with the conservative coalition -- which, after all, embraces business and disdains class warfare -- but against it. That is not a game plan that can win. As conservative theorist David Frum dryly remarks, "When you are liked by 20 percent of your party's loyalists, disliked by 20 percent and hated by 60 percent, it is highly unlikely that the party will nominate you for president."
If 1992 is any guide, Buchanan's appeal is about to crest. Four years ago, challenging a failed Republican president whom conservatives had come to despise, he won 37.4 percent in the New Hampshire primary. That was his high-water mark. He got 35.7 percent in the Georgia primary, 29.9 percent in Maryland, 25.7 percent in South Carolina. On Super Tuesday, he broke 30 percent in only two states, Florida and Rhode Island. Steadily, Buchanan's support melted. In Michigan -- a worried-about-jobs state if there ever was one -- he mustered only 25 percent. In Illinois, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, less than 24 percent. In North Carolina, Ohio, and 14 other primaries, his share of the vote was under 20 percent -- sometimes way under.
Buchanan can turn a phrase. He can strike a chord with the nervous and the worried. But he cannot win a majority. Not of Republicans; not of conservatives. He isn't the first candidate to run on resentment and play to the disaffected. Strom Thurmond had his followers in 1948; George Wallace had his in 1964. Their campaigns, too, burned brightly for a while. But they sputtered out. So will Buchanan's.
Which doesn't mean Republicans have nothing to worry about. The real sorrow and pity of the presidential race is that it lacks a true Reagan successor. The growth/opportunity/less-government creed that is the true "conservatism of the heart" has no knight in this tournament. Republicans may well recapture the White House in November, but if they do, it will be with a candidate who makes conservatives' blood run tepid. For the generation that knew Ronald Reagan, that's an awfully depressing prospect.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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