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Recently American Cause executive director Marcus Epstein interviewed our chairman Pat Buchanan about his beginnings in politics and the future of the GOP and conservative movement.
How did you get such a real bump in politics at a young age fresh out of journalism school?
[After journalism school] I got an offer from the St. Louis Globe Democrat to come out there... My desire when I went to journalism school was to become a columnist like the ones my father so admired: [Westbrook] Pegler, Constantine Brown, David Lawrence and folks like that. I went to St. Louis as a reporter, but after about six weeks there was an opening on the editorial page. So I applied. After I had written a couple of editorials they liked they told me I could hold keep the job until the new man was hired. But when the new man was hired, they kept me instead of the other old man. So I was an editorial writer at age 23, and I think they said I was the youngest editorial writer of a major newspaper in the US...
You became a leader of the conservative movement during the Nixon and Reagan Years, but in the late 80s you broke with what had become of the conservative movement. Explain.
After three and a half years with the Globe Democrat editorial page, I wanted to move on...so I joined up with Richard Nixon and stayed with him for nine years--three years before he was president, and five and half years until the helicopter pulled off the lawn. I had become known as the conservative in the White House. From there I became very well known, because I testified before the Watergate Committee ... and stayed out front with a column and television shows. Then I joined Ronald Reagan for two years, and came back out and did the McLaughlin Group, Crossfire and other national TV Shows. I guess I became one of the best known conservative leaders in the country outside of active politics...
I was a friend of George H.W. Bush and supported him in the 1988 election. What happened then was a couple of things: First was the Bush declaration that we are going to create a "New World Order" where the US was going to lead the U.N. in reshaping the world in our image. He supported quota bills, raised taxes, supported Big Government and more regulations. He moved away from the Reagan agenda. I think Reagan himself ... was tremendously puzzled by what Bush was doing. When he signed the quota bill [The Civil Rights Act of 1991] after the famous Clarence Thomas fight, I decided to challenge him for the Republican nomination--knowing that you are probably going to lose, but at least you get the message out that why Bush is the Republican nominee, he is no conservative.
By then, the definition of conservatism was somewhat up in the air, because the Cold War had ended ... and so I argued we ought to move to a more traditional America First foreign policy. Get rid of all these commitments abroad to go to war on behalf of nations that no longer had any connection with our vital national interest now that the Cold War was over.
We broke with the neoconservatives on that, and we broke on the issue of the Gulf War...Bob Novak and I, and a number of other conservatives got up and opposed it ... because we didn't think putting the Emir back on the throne in Kuwait was worth an American invasion... We said this would be only the first Arab American war if we go in, and we were right. But Bush won the War and was at 90% in June of 1991... In December, after he signed that quota bill, I said enough is enough, somebody has to raise the flag. So ten weeks before the New Hampshire primary, I announced...
Some of the Beltway conservatives not only went along with the neoconservatives, they ceded them the right to define the movement, and I think that's what destroyed conservatism.
That explains why neoconservatives opposed you. But why did so many mainstream conservatives like National Review attack you?
The point is that a lot of beltway conservatives came to depend financially and in every other way on the Republican Party and Republican Administrations--they lacked the courage and independence of their youth. It happens in all organizations. The years they spent outside they are young and sharp and challenged the establishment. Once they get in power they get to enjoy it. They come to town to do good; and they stay and do very well indeed. They have become part of the city. Like the River Nile. Every year it goes through, and when the tide recedes there's another layer left on the bank...and another layer, and another layer. I think conservatives here are just part of that.
There's no fire in the movement like we had in the Goldwater years ... or the early Reagan years.
Many of the issues you raised, such as trade and immigration are now a front and center. Has the conservative movement been right of these issues?
The conservative movement has not led, it has followed... Just this morning, The Economist arrived in the mail and the cover story was "The Return of Economic Nationalism."... They talked about how "Buy American" and getting rid of these trade deficits that are drying up our manufacturing base are big issues. That is an issue I ran against George H.W. Bush.
Why should Reagan Democrats vote for a Bush Republican Party, when under George W. Bush twenty five percent of all manufacturing jobs disappeared-over four million of them. Ohio, Michigan, and Western Pennsylvania are all leaving the Republican Party because the Party left them as did the Conservative Movement. They are free traders, and that is the ideology of the Business Roundtable and Fortune 500-not the philosophy of Middle America.
The whole idea of non-intervention, not trying to create little versions of Vermont and Iowa in the Middle East...We ran on non-interventionism, not engaging in foreign wars and quarrels that aren't in the interest of the US. I think if the Republican Party had moved with the tides and moved with where their people had gone, it would still be a dynamic party.
Running on border control and immigration, I got 30% or close to it in those southern California counties with not a nickel in 1992 ... five months after I ran in New Hampshire ... and completely defeated. If George H.W. Bush had done what I had done in California-taken the position on border security and illegal immigration-he might have won the election. Pete Wilson two years later ran on that issue alone, and he closed something like a 20 point gap and won by 10 points against Jerry Brown's little sister. And look how well Dole and Kemp did -the open borders guys-worse than any candidate in Republican Party history.
What others issues should conservatives rethink or reprioritize?
Quotas and racial set asides in government jobs are really affecting Middle Americans, white Americans. All they want is equal justice under law, and the Republican Party should stand behind them. And Ward Connerly's Amendments always run stronger than the Republican Party.
Cutting off welfare and social benefits to illegal aliens has always run better than Republicans. The border fence is a much more popular issue with the nation than the Republican Party is.
You have to stand by Right to Life, because that is a core value of the Republican Party...I would demand just an up and down vote if you're the out party in both Houses ... on the Human Life Amendment, and then do battle on the local level, and you got to oppose that Freedom of Choice Act.
But this will take a real fighting Republican Party.
If the movement and party are in shambles, what should we do to restart it?
The opportunity is as great is it's been since 1960. The Republican Party atrophied during the Eisenhower years, and the conservative movement was frustrated. What came out of the defeat of Nixon and the wipeout of Goldwater was a fighting movement. It believed in philosophical purity. It believed in doing political battle. The opportunity [is] here for a young Republican in Congress or for young leaders. 2010 is a tremendous opportunity for the Republican Party and Conservative Movement to put up people and start running now, and run against the positions of Obama---This monstrous stimulus package. And let me tell you, I don't think this thing will work ... so now is a golden opportunity. It is not a time to see how close they can get to the Democratic Party. It is a time for clarity. It is a time for no pale pastels. I'm not talking about bellicosity, or in your face, or dirty politics; just philosophically pure, clear politics. If I was 40 years younger I might even run for Congress myself.