CAMPAIGN JOURNAL: The Fumbling Four in Arizona
TEMPE,AZ -- A chuckling, sweating Pat Buchanan enters the packed dining room of the freeway-border suburban motel through the kitchen door, waving gleefully, resplendent in unlikely Western gear - billowing white shirt, too-tight bolo tie and -- yes he does have a sense of humor -- black cowboy hat.The media vibe says he's rising like a rocket in the polls -- though in truth he's mired in the same 25%-30% trough that he's been stuck in since Iowa, three weeks before. Therefore he's preceded by a large retinue of media drones, dragging their TV cameras, mike booms, and surly demeanors. And escorted by a blocking wall of local cops in bulging suits, secret service agents with telltale ear pieces, and his campaign staff, looking more exhausted than most twenty-somethings appear any time other than the week after spring break.It's one of seven appearances across the vast rural areas of Arizona that Buchanan will make this day, and one of twenty-seven in the three days before one million Republican voters are being asked, for the first time in the state's history, to vote in a Presidential primary.Here, as elsewhere around Arizona, the crowd is wildly enthusiastic, on their feet cheering for the first time since their meeting began, three hours earlier. It is not what you would call a tough audience for Buchanan. The 100 Arizonans present are members of "People for the West," an industry-funded "citizens" group with ties to the right-wing Christian identity and militia movements. Their slogan, "Keeping Public Lands Public" may be roughly translated as "doing in your acres as I've done in mine."Miners, ranchers, timber workers and their families, have spent the morning waiting for Pat, the only Republican presidential candidate among the Final Four to bother with an appearance before them.Before Buchanan's bustling arrival, the curiously few attending PFW's meeting - the organization claims 2,500 in-state members, and 26,000 throughout the West -- have been regaled with horror stories about federal bureaucratic transgressions against their self-proclaimed rights. One rancher tells how "two gals in pants from San Francisco, and a guy wearing about six earrings in each ear" descended on his family property to tell him and his father they couldn't pollute ground water on their ranch. "And we've been farming this place for three generations!"Another recounts a similar tale, where a woman (again) from a federal agency said she "didn't give a damn about how we do things around here," he would have to stop draining wetlands that serve as bird sanctuaries part of the year. That particular incident, near a town called Cottonwood, has now taken on mythic proportions among People for the West types, since the owner involved called a couple of hundred of his armed, camouflage-clad buddies out when the woman returned to serve "some paper or other" on him, and she supposedly hasn't been seen around there since.Similarly attired -- but this time unarmed -- men accompanied no less a personage than Arizona's governor himself last winter, when that much-disgraced official faced down, to hear him tell it to the appreciative PFW audience, yet more federal bureaucrats at the Grand Canyon. Seems like a -- you guessed it! -- "lady lawyer" from Washington told him on the phone that "it's not your park, it's our park" during one of Washington's budget-battle government shutdowns.The governor, of course, says he won that one, over a federal official once again. To an outsider, it's surprising to see the governor show his face at all, or indeed to find out that he still is governor. His statewide approval ratings are said to be somewhere around 25%, following a scandal in which he was implicated in a billion dollar's worth of S&L losses. And the personal bankruptcy he declared following a lavish trip to Europe. And an ongoing federal grand jury investigation into his finances. And, just this week, stories in the newspapers indicating that he may have illegally hidden assets through his heiress spouse, in order to get out of repaying a $10 million dollar loan to a union pension fund, obtained under what sounds like political duress."They still love him," a local reporter says of People for the West's adulation for Governor J. Fife Symington. "Because he never met a land deal he didn't like or an environmentalist he did." Symington's wealth, political pedigree ("I was one of four students for Goldwater at Harvard in 1964"), and philosophy are certainly within acceptable margins of discourse for those who settle these days in Arizona, one of the country's fastest growing states.Only one in four voters was born here, and the population grows about ten percent a year. "We have whole communities that didn't exist ten years ago," says Democratic party chair Sam Coppersmith. "Places around Phoenix have grown from 20,000 to 150,000 in population in a decade. In that kind of atmosphere, it's hard to develop a political culture." One of those burgeoning communities is Scottsdale, which, like most of the Phoenix area's once independent cities, grows inexorably towards a single metroplex monster, complete with traffic-choked freeways, L.A. class air pollution, and a series of gated, guarded developments with homes prices starting above $300,000, if you're lucky. "Nobody gives a damn where you came from or who you are, as long as you've got the cash to play whatever game you're into," says a restaurant owner, himself a transplanted (complete with authentic accent) New Yorker, now considered an old-timer after 16 years. "And besides, politics is kind of a sick joke in this state.Did you ever hear of Evan Mechan?" Indeed, the laughter is inevitable when Symington's predecessor, Evan Mecham, is discussed; no matter how infamous Symington's economic transgressions become, it is unlikely he will gain Mecham's national notoriety. Once elected, with an underwhelming 40 percent plurality obtained over more moderate, but vote-splitting candidates, the worthy Phoenix automobile dealer repealed his Democratic predecessor Bruce Babbitt's proclamation of a Martin Luther King Day holiday (since restored by voters in a statewide referendum); repeatedly called the United States a "Christian nation," including on one memorable occasion at a synagogue breakfast; and included among his appointments a revenue commissioner who had not filed his taxes and a liquor commissioner under investigation for murder. Mecham's hard-core followers now have a new organization, but his political influence is so diluted that no one seems to know who - or if - he's endorsed in this Presidential primary.In fact, the 1996 Arizona Republican primary is another example of the unpredictable political volatility exemplified by Mecham's fluke election and subsequent tortuous impeachment. Governor Symington, and his copycat Republican legislature, decided that if primaries are good business and good publicity for the nice people in Iowa and New Hampshire, wouldn't they be even better in a climate which everyone in Iowa and New Hampshire longs to visit, if not flee to permanently? And since the Governor's ideological soulmate, mean-mouthed Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, seemed like a good horse to ride at the time, why not give him a crack of the whip in a Southwestern state with a decent crop of Republican convention delegates? And thereby sow the kinds of political paybacks about which opportunistic politicians dream as their weary heads hit the pillow? Gramm, of course, despite shaking various money trees till the last greenbacks fell, turned out to have less electoral appeal than even the current crop of limited souls, and dropped out of the contest after Iowa, taking with him an estimated $10 million for his Senatorial re-election campaign in Texas. (One Arizona political analyst opined that Gramm's electoral appeal foundered when voters contemplated listening to his arrogant drone for four years of Presidential statements. "It would be like having to sit there listening helplessly to your dentist, only the pain would be more excruciating.") And so the Arizona electorate is left with the unfunded Republican fringe characters -- Lugar, Keyes, Dornan etc.-- who appear for debates and sidebar pieces in the newspaper, and then disappear in the voting booths. And the unfabulous foursome from which to choose.The Big Mo, we're told night and day, on TV, in the national and state press, and by savvy pundits, is with Preacher Pat.He glides through the Fiesta Motel's applauding audience, jostled by TV booms and print reporters' hand-held miniature recorders, signing an autograph or two, giggling that odd chortle, a startling reminder of his boyhood idol, the disgraced paranoid fantasizer of Cold War demons, Senator Joseph McCarthy.Though many of Buchanan's political positions show a definite McCarthyite heritage, he is no McCarthy. He will not dig his own doom through whispering campaigns of unsupported allegations and a methodology of media-averse, clandestine maneuvering. Rather, Buchanan weaves his spell publicly, orchestrating an impressive chorus of fellow AM talk-show ignoramuses who, here in Arizona as elsewhere, seem flattered by his presence. (Might Buchanan's successful cultivation of this burgeoning network of one-sided yakkers be just a little bit responsible for the bitterness towards Buchanan's candidacy being shown by none other than America's noisiest gasbag, Rush Limbaugh, whose daily denouncements of Buchanan's supposed deviation from "conservatism" are one of the few delightful ironies of this year's slog through the primaries?) Buchanan, made prosperous by the media-political machinery of his native Washington D.C., thrives on knowing how to tune up -- and down -- his controversial rhetoric. And since the national media, especially television -- which have the historical memory of a 24-hour life cycle insect -- let him get away with it, he does.Two days later in Tucson, for example, he will soft-pedal his anti-feminist, anti-immigrant, gunslinger-macho rhetoric when addressing the Tucson Republican Women's monthly luncheon. (That he was in some trouble electorally should have become obvious to the press corps at that luncheon, as about three-quarters of the 400 people attending didn't give him the expected standing O at his entrance, and sat on their hands during his applause lines. Later, several of the Republican women in that border region say they find Buchanan's well-known anti-immigration stance "prejudiced." Though, when pressed, they acknowledge their principle concern is maintaining "our economy." One of whose features -- maids, gardeners, and child- care workers at low -- or, in some well-publicized cases, no wages -- would be seriously threatened in the unlikely event that Buchanan's proposed 200 mile wall is ever built.) But that was in Tucson. Here in Tempe, he gives 'em what they want to hear. Our "constitutional republic" must be "restored" through such odd extra-constitutional measures as recall of "arrogant federal judges." Communities suffering economic dislocation because of environmental decisions by "extremists in the bureaucracy" must be allowed to make their own economically driven choices about what to log, what to pollute, what to strip-mine. Prayer must be required in public schools. Immigration must be ended. The "murder" of 34 million unwanted fetuses must be constitutionally terminated. Etc.It all plays well, but nothing quite so well as Buchanan's exit line: a promise to put Interior Secretary and former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt "on the endangered species list" when St. Pat, cleanser of the nation, restorer of morality, gets elected.Conversations with Buchanan supporters among the People for the West attendees show some revealing attitudes. Questions about Buchanan's bully-boy past, from his thuggish childhood, replete with admiration for fascist murderers like Spain's Francisco Franco, to his written and spoken record, replete with anti-Semitic and racist jargon, are answered in two ways. Either it's part of the liberal media propaganda conspiracy ("You guys will do anything to destroy Pat") or it's beside the point.One exponent of the latter point of view is Ron Dean, a 38- year-old mining machine equipment operator. "What I'm worried about is my job, and everyone else's job in my industry," says Dean. "Buchanan understands the working man. Clinton hasn't done anything for us." Dean is a former shop steward in the United Steel Workers Union, and calls himself a "strong union man." One union official estimates that 40% of Arizona's union members are Republican; Dean says that among his fellow workers, Buchanan is by far the favorite candidate.(The creeping Republicanization of the shrinking union movement should provide a sobering pause for those who think unions will provide a 1996 counterbalance to the organized force of the religious right. Even among the traditionally liberal United Auto Workers union, one Detroit area official estimates that 30% of his membership are now Republicans.) If Buchanan's working class appeal is real, it is also limiting in a place like Arizona, a now 85% urban and suburbanized state. A state filled with retirees and suburbanites who care more about issues like taxes and personal freedoms (Pat Buchanan, Web Censor?) than they do about NAFTA -- which, in any case, has arguably been beneficial to Arizonans.And, although Arizona is the most Republican of presidential states, having voted GOP in every election since 1948, it remains a politically fragmented puzzle. There's a strong Perotista faction, split between Buchanan and Forbes advocates, and ready to back either as a third or fourth party candidate if such candidacy should emerge.There's a weak though breathing Green Party, trying to revive itself in time to get Ralph Nader on the ballot. And there are Democrats, invisible in this Republican primary season, anxious to register more of the state's burgeoning Latino population, and convinced that at least one of their candidates -- Phoenix attorney Steve Owens -- can defeat an outspoken blowhard in the freshman Republican revolution, former TV sportscaster J.D. Hayworth.The volatility and unpredictability of Arizona politics surfaces once again as, on election night, the almost comically unattractive persona of Steve Forbes, grinning like a doughboy shark as he spends a cool three million dollars on TV ads, ultimately sways enough of the tiny turnout (25% of registered Republicans) to provide him with a narrow victory over dull Bob Dole. And, in third place, Pat Buchanan.Buchanan's own pollsters -- despite his supposed "populist" campaign, he has the full retinue of pollsters, advisers, media buyers, and fund-raisers who surround a 1996 Politics Inc. candidate -- have told him he's unlikely to win Arizona, so he leaves the state at noon on election day, after a final round of free promotion from his radio talk show soulmates.And then the whole madhouse lurched on to South Carolina and beyond, where despite -- or perhaps because of -- massive media blitzes the electorate continued to boycott the process (20% of the voters bothered to turn out in South Carolina - an open primary state where anyone registered, regardless of party declaration, could have participated.) Exit polling confirmed what anecdotal interviews revealed: there is little enthusiasm for any of the Fumbling Four.Little expectation, at this point, that any of them will defeat Clinton. Much desire for alternative candidates and parties.Agreement that economic issues and insecurities, not the morals and values trumpeted piously and vacuously on the Republicans' lurch through the primaries, are uppermost on peoples' minds.And a certainty that the whole wearying, corrupt, expensive charade will continue to blow, like an ill wind, over the rest of the country, before the evil dust it stirs begins to settle down on the wreckage of the discredited electoral system left behind.