Pat Buchanan speaks of American conservatism in the past tense.
“The conservative movement has passed into history,” says the one-time White House aide, three-time presidential candidate, commentator and magazine publisher.
“It doesn’t exist anymore as a unifying force,” he says in an interview with The Washington Times. “There are still a lot of people who are conservative, but the movement is now broken up, crumbled, dismantled.”
He is seated in his living room on a sunny afternoon. His wife, Shelley — a member of the Nixon White House staff when he met and married her — is upstairs in their Virginia home.
Mr. Buchanan, a former adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, says conservatism “is at war with itself over foreign policy, over deficit hawks versus supply-siders.”
Unnamed phonies, he suggests, have infiltrated the movement.
There are “a lot of people who call themselves conservative but who, on many issues, I just don’t consider as conservative. They are big-government people.”
Culture under attack
Conservatism, by most accounts, has dominated the Republican Party since 1964, when it nominated Barry Goldwater.
Mr. Buchanan questions that view. For one thing, he says, Mr. Nixon, who imposed wage and price controls on the nation and outraged conservatives with his historic opening to communist China in 1972, was not a conservative. Nor in his view is President Bush or today’s Republican Party.
“I was a conservative in the Nixon White House, but there was no question that it was not a conservative White House,” he says. “Nixon referred to conservatives as ‘they.’ He used to ask me, ‘What do they want?’ One time he said, ‘Buchanan, you have to give the nuts 20 percent of what they want.’”
Was the president referring to conservatives?
“No, he meant me,” Mr. Buchanan said with a laugh.
He was a Goldwater supporter in 1964, but Mr. Buchanan says the Arizona Republican was probably more of a libertarian than a traditional conservative. “But in 1964, he was a hard-core anti-communist, he was for downsizing big government, and on law and order, he was quite tough.”
But it is culture and values that matter for Mr. Buchanan, who for more than 40 years has helped shape American conservatism.
In his 1992 speech to the Republican National Convention in Houston, he declared: “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.”
He is still fighting that war.
“American culture has become toxic and poisonous,” he says. “Take a look at what Hollywood produces today and what it produced in the 1950s. The alteration is dramatic.”
He suggests that in some respects, traditionalists might be fighting for a lost cause. “We say we won a great victory by defeating gay marriage in 11 state-ballot referenda in November,” he says. “But I think in the long run, that will be seen as a victory in defense of a citadel that eventually fell.”
As he later says, “I can’t say we won the cultural war, and it’s more likely we lost it.”
The evidence? He says it was all over the tube, in prime time, at last year’s Republican National Convention, which featured California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York Gov. George E. Pataki and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, all social liberals.
“They are indifferent to those moral issues because they see them — and correctly — as no longer popular, no longer the majority positions that they used to be,” he says. “They say, ‘Let’s put those off the table and focus on the issues where we still have a majority — strong national defense and cutting taxes.’”
So, Mr. Buchanan concludes, Republicans have “abdicated from the cultural war. They’ve stacked arms.”
Revolution from above
Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s and ‘70s, Mr. Buchanan says, sparked a conservative response.
“The conservative movement is in large part a reaction to the social revolution that had been imposed on this country from above, without the consent of the people, by the Supreme Court.
“Frankly, you would not have a cultural war in this country if the Supreme Court had said, ‘Look, free speech is one thing, but pornography is not covered by the First Amendment.’”
If the justices “had stayed away from forced busing, if they had let the states decide abortion and gay rights, you would not have had the cultural war — and probably not have had the victories that the Republican Party had in the 1970s and ‘80s.”
Mr. Buchanan declares war on a faction of the movement in his latest book: “Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency.”
He expresses resentment over the “imperialist” prescriptions of neoconservatives. “I don’t think neoconservatives are conservative at all,” he says. “I’m often asked what exactly is it that they want to conserve. They are Wilsonian interventionists abroad; they are big government at home.”
Unlike many other conservative spokesmen, Mr. Buchanan has done battle in the world of real politics. He challenged the first President Bush for the Republican presidential nomination in 1992, sought the party’s nomination again in 1996 and briefly in 2000 before surprising — and disappointing — some of his admirers by running as a third-party candidate in 2000.
He remains sensitive about having left the party he served for so long.
“You don’t register by party in Virginia,” he says when asked whether he still considers himself a Republican. “I consider myself an independent conservative who votes Republican — except when I’m on the ballot.”
‘No choice’ on immigration
Failure to confront the immigration issue is an important sign of the breakup of conservatism, he says. Immigration failed to become an issue in the 2004 election, he says, “because both major parties agreed that they would do nothing to defend the borders and that we ought to have amnesty for those who break in illegally. There was no choice.”
Although he supported Mr. Bush’s re-election, he says the president “has abdicated his responsibility to defend America from a foreign invasion. We add half a million illegals to our population each year, most of whom come to work, some to commit crimes against American citizens.”
A desire to secure the nation’s borders against an immigrant invasion has nothing to do with the “nativism” that critics ascribe to him, he says.
“I say, look, the kind of immigrants we want are people who want to come here and become part of the American family … not just to work and then go back home.”
He warns of long-term consequences.
“Look, you’re going to have 100 million people of Hispanic, primarily Mexican, descent in the American Southwest by the middle of this century, and I think you are in danger of losing the American Southwest, de facto. I think this country is risking coming apart, like other countries in the world, over issues of language, culture and ethnicity.”
Opposition to Mr. Bush’s proposed guest-worker program, which would allow illegal aliens to gain legal residency here, may herald a conservative comeback, Mr. Buchanan says.
“The president is in trouble,” he explains. “He’s on the defensive, because he is not going to get his guest-workers program. He’s going to get a House that tries to impose upon him the obligation to do his duty and defend this country from the invasion from Mexico, which he has refused to do.”