WEIRTON, W.Va., March 1-It was only a warm-up, but conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan was at full throttle here today on the subject of America's place in the global economy and what he described as the threat posed by the Clinton administration's trade policies toward the country's manufacturing base and its workers.
With the familiar chant of "Go, Pat, go" ringing in the air, he entered the Thomas Milsop Community Center to a rousing reception, once again a seemingly happy warrior delivering an angry message of economic nationalism.
Buchanan's appearance here was a prelude to the main event, his scheduled announcement Tuesday in Manchester, N.H., that for the third time in this decade he will seek the Republican presidential nomination. His candidacy is viewed as the longest of long-shots, but twice before Buchanan's calls to protect American workers and their jobs have bedeviled the GOP establishment and its anointed front-runners, and he clearly hopes to do so again.
"Free trade is the philosophy of nations on the way down," he thundered to a crowd of about 800 in the community center, where hand-made signs proclaimed that "Free Traders Are Traitors" and "Stand Up For America."
Asserting that China is using its trade surplus with the United States to finance an armaments program that could threaten U.S. forces in the Pacific, he said of U.S. trade policy toward China, "You're walking very close to the line of treason."
In some ways this was an odd place for a pre-campaign rally for a conservative Republican. This is solidly Democratic territory, where every local official is a Democrat and Republicans last ran a candidate for Congress in 1994.
But Weirton Steel Corp., an employee-owned firm that was rescued in the mid-1980s when its parent company, National Steel, tried to shut it down, is emblematic of problems besetting the U.S. steel industry as it tries to compete with cheap steel imports.
According to company officials, "dumping" of cheap steel products largely by Brazil, Japan and Russia was the cause of its loss of $13.6 million in the last two quarters of 1998, forcing it to lay off 800 of 4,700 employees; 10,000 steelworkers have been laid off nationwide.
Responding to "dumping" complaints, the Commerce Department ruled last month that Japanese and Brazilian steel was subject to stiff duties. A similar finding against Russia was eased in return for a promise from Moscow to slash Russian steel shipments by 70 percent. Citing a 34 percent decline in steel shipments to the United States in the last three months, the administration argues that the flood of cheap steel coming into the country is receding.
But that has not satisfied Weirton officials or their employees. Nor did it satisfy Buchanan, who today demanded that President Clinton impose "across-the-board quotas on all steel and steel products" shipped to the United States.
"They are letting go with indifference to the heart of this country, the muscle of this country," Buchanan said in an echo of his 1996 campaign, when he stunned his party by winning the New Hampshire primary. "For what? So they can trade pieces of paper on Wall Street."
Buchanan's contention is that the International Monetary Fund has encouraged the dumping of cheap steel and other products in the United States by economically troubled countries so that they can raise the money to repay IMF loans. He made that case in a newspaper column last year that referred to a rally held here to protest dumping practices. That led to the invitation to stop here on his way later today to New Hampshire.
It also made him "somewhat of a cult figure" in this gritty industrial town of 22,000 that is tucked in a valley of West Virginia's narrow panhandle, said Mayor Dean Harris, 43, a Democrat and 25-year employee of the steel plant that provides about half of the city's tax revenue.
There are other reasons that Buchanan could expect a receptive audience in Weirton for his populist, anti-Wall Street, pro-worker message, Harris said. One is the vivid memory of the 1992 visit here of Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore, on their first campaign bus tour, when Clinton promised to "enforce strictly the anti-dumping laws."
For years, pictures of the visit were displayed at the community center, but about six weeks ago they were taken down. "The pictures are facing a wall in a closet collecting dust," said Terry Weigel, who runs the community center. "That seems to be the action he's taken on the import crisis -- collecting dust -- so that's what his pictures are doing."
Buchanan made sure to recall that 1992 visit today to an audience that liked what it heard even if many remained skeptical of the prospects of a Buchanan candidacy. "At least a voice is heard," said Kent Hudspeth, 58, a retired steelworker.
Buchanan hinted that may be enough for him. Dressed casually
in a plaid shirt, white Weirton Steel hard hat and green company
jacket, he emerged from a plant tour this morning and spoke briefly
to reporters. "When you have a campaign, you ought to use it for
a cause," he said. "The cause of my campaign if and when I announce
tomorrow will be to put American workers and people first."
(c) Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.