TCS Daily

Correcting the Buchanan Speech Myth

By Nick Schulz - September 7, 2004 12:00 AM

I do not like Pat Buchanan's politics (even if he used to be "a terrific red-baiter"). But despite my distaste for his views, there is a liberal myth -- echoed at times by conservatives -- about Buchanan and a speech he delivered twelve years ago that should be corrected.

Buchanan's GOP convention speech in 1992 -- in which he discussed a "religious" and "cultural war" going on in the US -- was in many ways as divisive as the conventional wisdom about it now holds. That's not the myth part. The myth is that the speech was harmful to the first President Bush's reelection efforts.

The only reason to bring up this ancient history is because Democrat Zell Miller's barnburner last week at the GOP convention is being compared to the Buchanan speech...

by The Washington Post ("Democrats said they were certain [Miller] had crossed the line and would hurt Bush, in much the same way that commentator Pat Buchanan's fiery 1992 convention speech frightened independent voters.")

by E.J. Dionne ("Buchanan's 'culture wars' speech [is] widely thought to have damaged the first President Bush at the 1992 Republican convention.")

by CNN's Wolf Blitzer report ("Buchanan's 1992 speech was so angry it may have hurt the elder President Bush's chances at re-election. Some say Miller's speech was equally angry and may hurt President George W. Bush's chances at re-election.")

by The New Republic ("Buchanan II?")

by ABC's George Stephanopolous

The list goes on and on.

The problem with the comparison is that the Buchanan speech, according to poll data, arguably helped the elder Bush. One poll by CBS showed George H.W. Bush with a seven-point spike in the first three days of the convention -- after the Buchanan speech had time to sink in. Another poll from the Houston Chronicle showed Bush with an 11-point jump after the first three nights. A New York Times poll that showed Bill Clinton leading Bush by almost 20 points just before the Houston convention began showed Clinton just two points ahead by the night Bush spoke. Ted Koppel said just after the Buchanan speech: "our ABC poll, taken over the past five days, shows the gap narrowing to 20 points... By tomorrow, that gap will have appreciably narrowed. You can count on it."

Some harm.

It shouldn't surprise that the Buchanan speech didn't hurt 41; and it shouldn't surprise if the Zellous speech delivered Wednesday night -- described, hilariously in my view, as a "fascistic tirade" in The American Prospect and "a war on democracy" in The New Republic -- doesn't harm 43 (indeed, since the big Bush bump after the convention, the media spin is already evolving to Zell's speech being full of "lies"). My sense is speeches delivered by surrogates probably don't make a huge overall difference to a candidate's election prospects. But they can make a huge difference to media elites with axes to grind in need of a convenient -- and false -- storyline. As Ted Koppel might put it: "You can count on it."


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