Pat Buchanan's "America First" Challenge

Declaring that the differences between himself and President Bush were "too deep," conservative columnist and commentator Pat Buchanan announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination on December 10, 1991 at the State Legislative Office Building in Concord.[1]  In his speech Buchanan took on foreign aid, the welfare state, multiculturalism, and "a society suffering a chronic moral sickness."  He declared that Bush's actions on taxes, spending and the quota bill and his belief in "some vague New World Order" marked him as a man of the past.
Buchanan's challenge to a sitting president violated the rules and put him up against much of the Republican establishment, making it extremely unlikely that he would be able to win the nomination.  Commentators suggested that he was seeking define the direction of conservatism and positioning himself for a bid in 1996.[2]  But Buchanan presented more than a nuisance to Bush.  Well known for his television work and newspaper columns, he had strong convictions and he communicated them forcefully.[3]  Bush, by contrast, seemed to have no clear ideology and at times slipped into inarticulateness.

In New Hampshire, the depressed economy and anger at Bush created fertile ground for Buchanan's candidacy.  The Manchester Union-Leader proved to be a valuable ally.  In early November it ran an editorial calling for Buchanan to run.  Throughout the contest it gave him favorable coverage, including lots of photos.  Front page editorials by publisher Nackey S. Loeb, with headlines such as "We Need a Fighter, Not a Wimp" (February 7) and "A Clear Choice: Cop-Out or Conviction" (February 12), were not uncommon.  Bush's lack of organization in the state helped Buchanan, and Buchanan's campaign also attracted many people who had worked for Kemp in 1988.

Buchanan sought to get his message out through the national media and talk radio.  The campaign knew that the national media would be interested because the element of controversy made for a great story.  At the same time, to get more than a sound bite of the day out, Buchanan used talk radio to explain his vision and reasons for taking on Bush.

Buchanan concentrated most of his efforts on obtaining a good showing in New Hampshire.  On the campaign trail he showed himself to be energetic and engaging, and he continued to speak his mind.  For example, in late December he endorsed the idea of a "Buchanan fence," a fenced trench along segments of the U.S.-Mexico border to stem illegal immigration.  Major elements of Buchanan's "America First" campaign included a phasing out of foreign aid, a tough trade stance, a spending freeze, support for a constitutional amendment to allow prayer in schools and a solid pro-life position. 

The Buchanan campaign pounded Bush on his broken pledge not to raise taxes.  On January 15, the same day Bush arrived for his first campaign visit to the state, Buchanan ran a full page ad in the Union-Leader asking, "Why don't you take the tax pledge again, Mr. President?"  Buchanan's first radio and television ads, which began airing in the latter part of January, led off with Bush's "Read my lips--no new taxes!" pledge.  The narrator then stated, "Bush betrayed our trust.  He raised our taxes," and urged voters to "send Bush a message."  The TV ad was repeated so often that children began to echo it.

On February 18 the "Buchanan Brigades" caught Bush's full attention.  Early results, reported in the next day's papers, showed Buchanan with 41 percent, although by the time all the votes were counted the figure was reduced to 37 percent.  The strong showing drew at least as much notice as the Democratic results.  The Boston Herald headline proclaimed "Bush whacked!"[4] while the Union-Leader trumpeted "Read Our Lips."
Buchanan next turned his attention to the South and the March 3 Georgia primary.  He criticized the 1991 Civil Rights Act, saying it would lead to "reverse discrimination," and he assailed the National Endowment of the Arts.  The Bush campaign responded with ads attacking Buchanan's position on the Gulf War[5] and women in the workplace.  After Georgia, where he obtained 36 percent of the vote, Buchanan continued on to California, amassing a total of 2.9 million votes in some 33 primary contests.

Buchanan was not done, however.  He delivered an aggressive speech to the Republican National Convention in primetime on August 17, and his remarks on homosexuals, radical feminism and Hillary Clinton's views on marriage provoked considerable controversy.[6]    

1. Buchanan signaled he was seriously weighing a presidential run in a November 1991 Capitol Hill news conference on the subject of foreign aid.  Responding to a reporter's question, he said, "I will only go if I think I have a chance to win this thing, a long shot (>)."  Buchanan had considered a presidential run before.  See the parody video shown at the Spina Bifida Association's 3rd Annual Roast in Oct. 15, 1991 broadcast by C-SPAN (about 27 minutes in)  and  Steven V. Roberts.  "Buchanan Yields to Kemp in Race."  New York Times, Jan. 21, 1987.

2. See for example: Charles Krauthammer.  "Why Buchanan Runs."  Washington Post, November 24, 1991, page C7.  Krauthammer wrote the purpose of a Buchanan campaign in 1992 would be to "claim hegemony over the conservative movement and to establish himself -- and his Old Right (paleo) conservatism -- as the only true heir to Ronald Reagan." 

3. Many admired Buchanan's plainspokenness and dexterous use of language, but some of his statements raised concerns that he was anti-Semitic or racially insensitive.  A widely reported example occurred on the December 8 "This Week With David Brinkley," where he stated "I think God made all people good, but if we had to take a million immigrants in, say Zulus, next year, or Englishmen, and put them in Virginia, what group would be easier to assimilate and would cause less problems for the people of Virginia?"  William F. Buckley, Jr. addressed the anti-Semitism question in a lengthy and much discussed essay: William F. Buckley, Jr.. "In Search of Anti-Semitism." National Review, December 30, 1991.  However, Michael Kinsley, the liberal voice on "Crossfire," defended Buchanan.  Colman McCarthy, in a December 24, 1991 Washington Post column "Buchanan Always Right, Usually Wrong," referred to Buchanan's "intellectual grossness," while others accused Buchanan of scapegoating.

4. The Herald had endorsed Buchanan.

5. Buchanan's camp maintained that the Gulf War ad was fallacious.  In addition, it turned out that former Marine Commandant P.X. Kelly, featured in the ad, had made a speech a month before Operation Desert Storm, in which he had suggested that Kuwait be placed under a UN trusteeship.  The campaign obtained a tape of the speech, dubbed off hundreds of copies, and distributed them to radio stations.  NBC News reported on this ironic twist on primary election night--after Georgians had cast their votes. 

6. Buchanan later addressed what he called "Myth of Houston" in a column.  See Patrick J. Buchanan.  "The Houston Syndrome,"  May 11, 1994.  Buchanan and others who worked on his campaign note that Bush's team saw the speech before he delivered it and were enthusiastic.  Greg Mueller, Buchanan's press secretary, says that RNC Chair Rich Bond stood up to applaud seven times during the speech.  Further, polls conducted after the night's speeches showed that Clinton's lead had been cut by 8 to 10 points.  The problems for the president began, in Buchanan's view, when Bush's cohorts began distancing themselves.  "They ran away from the issues," said Mueller.

More Resources:
Patrick J. Buchanan - Official Website
C-SPAN: Pat Buchanan Jan. 1991-Nov. 1992 chronological  |  C-SPAN: all Pat Buchanan