GOP at a Pitchfork in Road

Buchanan's protectionist theme resonates with worried workers

PAT BUCHANAN'S victory margin in the New Hampshire primary may have been small - only about 2,500 votes - but the implications of his win for the Republican Party could be huge.

The message of the win: A significant portion of GOP voters oppose institutions long central to Republican identity - free trade and big business.

The reason: Many Americans are anxious about a changing global economy and what it means for their own well-being. They provide fertile territory for the populist's call to close the borders to immigrants, raise barriers to foreign goods, and fight ''corporate fat cats.''

''Buchanan's the only voice of people who think they're being shafted by foreign trade and corporate executives,'' says a Democratic analyst. ''No one else is saying this.''

Mr. Buchanan's message transcends party politics. Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader, and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, the top Democrat in the House of Representatives, all share his view that the government needs to do more to stick up for the ''little guy'' in a time of economic dislocation. They all opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, an object of some Americans' economic anxieties.

But Buchanan is the only proponent of the protectionist, America-first line who is a major candidate for president. So he has this field, dominated by working-class white voters, to himself. Many of these voters are apparently untroubled by or do not believe charges that link Buchanan to racist and xenophobic causes.

The reasons for economic anxiety are readily apparent. Even as Wall Street keeps breaking records and the national unemployment rate sits at a low 5.6 percent, large companies are laying off thousands of workers in the name of restructuring and competitiveness. Factories are closing; some jobs move within the United States, but some go to Mexico or overseas. Real wages are flat or declining for some segments of the work force. Consumer confidence has been falling for several months.

Around New Hampshire, many voters said that while they personally were doing well, they worried about finding good jobs if they were laid off. Unemployment there is now only 3.2 percent, but memories are strong of the deep Granite State recession in the late 1980s and early '90s.

Buchanan, in fact, might have done even better in New Hampshire - a state which tends toward a libertarian attitude on social issues such as abortion - if not for the Christian aspect to his message. B.J. Perry, owner of KRL Bantry Components Inc., a resistor manufacturer in Manchester, N.H., worries about the rise of foreign imports competing with his firm. But Mr. Perry ''just wasn't comfortable with Buchanan.'' He added: ''I think it's the Christianity thing. We agreed to separation of church and state a long time ago.''

But when Buchanan starts campaigning in earnest in the South, he will be looking forward to reaching people like Tom Hardigree. Mr. Hardigree, a clothing manufacturer who lives in South Carolina and works in Georgia, will volunteer for Mr. Buchanan in both states. (South Carolina is the first Southern state to hold a primary, March 2, and will pose a crucial test for the three top GOP candidates. Georgians vote on Super Tuesday, March 5, with eight other states.)

''I don't disagree with Buchanan about anything,'' Hardigree says. And he has even benefited from NAFTA, he adds. But that's only because his friends have been hurt. ''When my friends go belly up, we get their business,'' he says. ''They can't compete with those low Mexican wages, so they close down here and move down there. Some are going to the Caribbean.''

Most economists say that Buchanan's economic policies would be disastrous for the country. ''If the US were to withdraw from the World Trade Organization, it would set us down the road to a trade war,'' says Douglas Irwin, a trade analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. ''As the 1930s showed us, trade wars are contractionary.''

The fact is, Mr. Irwin says, there's been tremendous growth in American exports since the mid-1980s, and those exports represent jobs, especially in the high-skilled, high-wage areas. ''If we clamp down on imports, exports will be hurt,'' he says. ''Trade barriers are a false cure for a very real problem - economic insecurity.''

But Buchanan supporters don't care to hear the dry explanations of economists. They see factories closing and corporate executives taking home bigger and bigger pay as middle managers get pink slips. If the perception is that free trade is a bogeyman, then that perception is a reality in the political arena.

Steve Wagner of the Luntz polling firm, which works for Republicans, says it's important to look at more than Buchanan's economic message to understand his appeal. ''This is not a presidential election about economics; it's an election about what kind of society we have,'' he says. ''Economics is a component of that - the capacity to achieve the American dream. But Buchanan isn't about [economic] growth; he's about putting certain constituencies first - people who've taken a back seat in national priorities.''

It's a message about protecting the vulnerable, including the unborn, in an increasingly harsh world. It is, Buchanan says, a ''conservatism of the heart.''

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