The Promise Breaker and the Future
Mickey G. Craig
June 16, 2014
Clearly, the election of Clinton-Gore is not a repudiation of Ronald Reagan’s policies or of the Republican Party. One need only look at election results in the Congress and State Legislatures to see the formula for future Republican victory and to see that the 1992 election, like the ’84 election, was a missed opportunity for a fundamental realignment in American politics.
Clearly, George Bush lost the election for one reason which had two devastating consequences. He reneged on or, more precisely, he broke the one promise, “Read my lips, no new taxes,” that in 1988 salvaged his primary campaign, won him the Republican nomination for President and subsequently the Presidency. One must recall that early in 1988, after Bush had finished third in Iowa behind Bob Dole and Pat Robertson, Bush went to New Hampshire in a must-win situation and took the ‘No New Taxes’ pledge. Bob Dole refused the pledge, Pat Robertson tripped on missiles in Cuba and Jack Kemp had no opening since Bush had stolen the tax issue. Under the astute guidance of John Sununu, Bush salvaged his campaign in New Hampshire. Then Bush went South, pledge in hand. Lee Atwater et al had arranged for the South Carolina Republican Primary to fall on the Saturday before Super Tuesday. Bush took South Carolina and then swept the South on Super Tuesday, effectively securing his nomination. The pledge was the linch-pin of his general election campaign as well. Without the “No New Taxes” pledge George Bush would not have won the Republican nomination and thus would not have been President.1
Breaking the “No New Taxes” pledge had two consequences. First, it alienated a large segment of Bush’s conservative base, this leading to the challenge by Pat Buchanan. Buchanan served primarily as a vehicle for protest voters. He failed miserably in his attempt to put together a majority coalition of fiscal conservatives and social conservatives based on a protectionist economic policy and isolationist foreign policy. Nonetheless, his vote totals showed the vulnerability of the incumbent President and the anger of his conservative base. This anger at Bush was sustained through the general election. In the general election, Bush received a lower percentage of the Republican vote than did Barry Goldwater in 1964. Bush received a meager 73% of the GOP vote in 1992 while Goldwater in his landslide defeat had captured 80%. Exit polls showed that 17% of Republicans voted for Perot and 10% for Clinton. Tracking polls in Ohio showed Perot taking three votes from Bush for every two votes he took from Clinton. If Bush had kept his base, he probably would have won in spite of the economy.
The second and perhaps more important consequence of breaking the ‘No New Taxes’ pledge was that it was a bad policy which deepened the recession and thus alienated that large segment of the population who simply vote their pocketbooks. Whether justly or not, Bush bore the brunt of the blame (somehow Congress escapes accountability) for the economic slow-down. As Paul Craig Roberts has noted.2, numerous policies dating back to the Tax Reform Act of 1986 were responsible for the anemic performance of the economy during the Bush Administration. In addition to the political capital Bush lost, Roberts has shown that the Budget Agreement of 1990 marked the beginning of the rise in unemployment from the 5 to 5.5% range to the 7.5 to 8.0% range. The lack of private sector job growth and the insecurity of those with jobs simply exacerbated the problem.
Bush also abandoned another vital part of the Reagan Legacy related to economic policy. That is de-regulation. While the media focused on the relatively modest de-regulatory actions of the Vice President’s Competitiveness Council, the President re-regulated the economy through the Clean Air Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1991 Civil Rights Act, new strangling regulations regarding S&Ls and bank loans, and ultimately almost doubling the size of The Federal Register to approximately 200,000 pages. All of these regulations struck at the heart of the Republican base and stifled economic growth.
Other factors, such as, lingering questions about Iran-Contra, Iraqgate, family values, the Republican Convention, Yugoslavia, China, urban problems, a poorly run Republican campaign (several state party Chairmen moaned that this was the worst Republican campaign in memory), the best run Democratic campaign since 1964, and the left-wing bias in the press and media3 were secondary to the broken promise and the economy. Many of these important issues which chipped away at the GOP base, but in the end they were secondary.
The amazing thing is that Bush came so close to winning. Why? One, he was viewed by the American people as an excellent leader in foreign policy. Two, he remained faithful to the social conservatives in his firm opposition to pro-abortion legislation. Third, he kept some conservative activists in line with his judicial appointments, especially his nomination and support of Clarence Thomas. Fourth, inflation was whipped and interest rates were at thirty-year lows. Fifth, who could imagine a better candidate to run against than a draft-dodging, philandering, slick-talking, yuppie, baby boomer, career politician, Governor from a small and poor Southern state?
In fact, if Ross Perot had not been in the election, there is little doubt that the popular vote would have been much closer and that the Electoral College vote may even have been in Bush’s favor. Voting analyses and exit polling data seem to show that most of Perot’s support came from white, conservative, suburban males. Sounds like Reagan voters to me. Bush lost twenty-two states which he had won in 1988 and won none that he lost in ’88. Five of these states—New Hampshire, Vermont, New Jersey, Montana and Illinois—had not voted Democrat since 1964. In eleven of the twenty-two states which Bush lost in 1992 after winning in 1988, he lost by 5% or less while Perot was winning from 10% to 26% of the vote in the state. Those eleven states represented 112 Electoral College votes.4. To take two specific examples of how Perot cost Bush, we can look at two suburban counties just north of Detroit, Michigan: the famous Macomb County and St. Clair County, just north of Macomb. In 1988 Bush received almost 61% of the vote in Macomb County to Dukakis’s 39%. In 1992, in Macomb, Bush received 43%, Clinton 38%, and Perot 19%. But when one looks at the raw numbers Perot’s impact is made clearer still. In 1988, in Macomb Bush received 175,632 votes to Dukakis’s 112,586. In 1992 in Macomb County Bush took 147,795 while Clinton 130,732 and Perot took 67,954. In St. Clair County in 1988 Bush took approximately 60% (53,245 votes) of the vote to 39%(20,909) for Dukakis. In 1992, Bush took approximately 36% (24,508), Clinton 36% (23,385), and Perot 28% (18,523). Bush’s vote totals in these vital suburban counties dropped precipitously while Clinton’s raw vote total increases slightly over Dukakis’s, although his percentages dropped; Perot took up the slack. This election seems to be less an endorsement of Clinton than a repudiation of Bush. In this sense, the election of 1992 is a repeat of 1980. That is, it is the repudiation of a failed president.
Clearly, the election of Clinton-Gore is not a repudiation of Ronald Reagan’s policies or of the Republican Party. One need only look at election results in the Congress and State Legislatures to see the formula for future Republican victory and to see that the 1992 election, like the ’84 election, was a missed opportunity for a fundamental realignment in American politics. The Republican Party fared fairly well in ’92 considering the dismal performance at the top of the ticket. The Republicans picked up nine state houses around the country not including a tie in the Florida State Senate. The Party held its own in the U.S. Senate races and actually picked up nine seats in the House of Representatives. This is only the second time in the 20th Century that a new President of a different party has lost seats to the other party in the House of Representatives.5.
The formula for future Republican Party success is easy to see. One need only look to Michigan to see the recipe for future Republican success. The extraordinary thing about the election in Michigan is not that Bush lost by a substantial margin a state which he won rather handily in 1988, but that while Bush was losing here the State Republican Party recaptured control of the State House of Representatives for the first time since 1968. This victory for the Republicans in Michigan follows their success in recapturing the Governor’s mansion in 1990. John Engler won election to the office of Governor by a mere 18,000 votes out of a total of 2,500,000 cast. In spite of his narrow victory, Engler has without apology refused to compromise on core conservative principles and policies. He eliminated a $1.1 billion budget deficit without breaking his promise not to raise taxes. Against great pressure, he abolished a general welfare program. He had shown his core constituents that he will remain faithful to his campaign promises and that he will fight and not compromise with those who oppose the fundamental principles of the party.
In 1992 the Republicans in Michigan gained five (or six, pending recount) seats in the State House of Representatives. Their greatest victory was the defeat of the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, Lew Dodak, by a fork-lift operator who had been active in local politics. While a fairer redistricting made several districts competitive for the first time in memory, the keys to the Michigan GOP victory were numerous: a clear statement of principles, a record of sticking to those principles, an intelligent grass-roots recruitment effort, a sophisticated get out the vote effort, well-targeted aces, simply out-hustling arrogant incumbents, and a well-integrated overall campaign. The Republicans coordinated the smallest race with the biggest race and even, or perhaps especially, coordinated ballot initiatives to the overall strategy of the general election campaign. There was, for example, an initiative placed on the ballot which occupied the attention and resources of the Michigan Education Association, a strong backer of the Democratic Party in Michigan. The initiative, instigated and supported by Governor Engler, was a property tax cut proposal that Engler couldn’t get through the Democratic House. It would have cut by 30% the amount of property taxes used to fund public schools. While the initiative lost, it caused the M.E.A. to focus its efforts on the proposal and spend approximately $2.5 million to help defeat it. This $2.5 million could have gone a long way to help those defeated Democratic incumbents. Five Democratic incumbents lost by less than 1,000 votes.
To sum up, Bush lost in Michigan for the same reason he lost overall, “the economy, stupid.” Engler and the Republican Party won in Michigan because Engler has led an aggressive reformist campaign and his administration has stuck to its principles and refused to compromise while playing hard-ball at every level and in every possible way. Clearly stated principles, a record of sticking to those principles, a hard-ball team effort in opposition to the enemy is the formula for the Republican success.
The Reagan Coalition consisted of three parts: anti-communist Cold Warriors, Social Conservatives (primarily the pro-life movement today, but in the 70’s it was anti-busing and pro-school prayer, or more specifically anti-activist Judiciary) and fiscal conservatives/economic libertarians. The threat of a common external enemy, the Soviet Union, was the glue which held the religious and economic elements together. The key to future Republican success is to put these pieces back together again. The fortunate thing for the Republican Party is that they don’t have to retreat to Socratic musings, Christian otherworldliness or even Existential brooding in order to salvage their future. They only have to look around and see where and why they have been successful and where and why they have been unsuccessful. A clear statement of principles, the courage to stand by those convictions and the cleverness to exploit the weakness of the enemy is all it takes. The American people want lower taxes, they want less government, and they want more ordered freedom. Even exit polls by CBS, ABC, CNN, and NBC show this. The Reagan Coalition is still there, it is merely in Democratic drag. The Reagan Legacy can be remade. In 1988 George Bush ran as a Ronald Reagan Republican. From January 1989 to the summer of 1992 he governed like a Rockefeller Republican. Late, very late one might add, in the general election campaign of 1992 Bush tried to put the Ronald Reagan clothing on again. But the voters just said no.
Notes1. Not only did Bush take the “No New Taxes” pledge but as James Carville, Clinton’s Campaign manager and Lee Atwater of the Democratic Party, reminded everyone constantly during the General Election Campaign in 1992; “George Bush said, I won’t raise your taxes, Congress will push and I’ll say no, Congress will push some more, I’ll resist again, and then Congress will push some more, and finally I’ll say Read My Lips, No New Taxes.” Bush promised no new taxes and he promised to fight Congress. Not only did he not keep his promise, but also he proved to be no Harry Truman. The navy fighter pilot and the hero of Desert Storm was unwilling to take on Congress. The Bush campaign seemed at a loss early on about what its main campaign themes should be. In the end they chose “Trust” for the promise-breaker’s campaign.
2. See especially, Paul Craig Roberts, “Economic Dominoes,” National Review, November 30, 1992, pp. 37-42.
3. Take media bias. Suppose that Dan Quayle had gone to Vietnam but not as an infantryman but as a journalist. Would the media have howled about the special influence of his father if he had received this plum assignment? And even more outrageous, what would the media have done with the Walsh indictment of Caspar Weinberger four days before the election if the shoe had been on the other foot and the Democratic candidate had been implicated? One need only ask oneself, about which sexual harassment charges have you heard more, Senator Packwood’s, the Republican, or Senator Inouye’s, the Democrat?
4. The eleven states are listed with Bush’s margin of defeat first and Perot’s total percentage second: Colorado (Bush’s margin of defeat 4%, Perot 23%), Georgia (less than 1%, 13%), Kentucky (4%, 14%), Louisiana (5%, 12%), Montana (3%, 26%), Nevada (2%, 26%), New Hampshire (1%, 23%), New Jersey (2%, 16%), Ohio (2%, 21%), Tennessee (5%, 22%), Vermont (5%, 22%). Two other states which Bush won in ’88 and lost in ’92 are worth mentioning in this connection: In Connecticut Bush lost by 6% while Perot was taking 22% of the total and in Michigan Bush lost by 7% while Perot was taking 19%. One state which Bush lost in ’88 was also very close in ’92: In Wisconsin Bush lost by 4% while Perot was taking 22%.
5. In 1960 when John Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon the Republican Party picked up twenty seats in the House of Representatives. On two occasions a candidate of the same party as the outgoing President has lost seats in the House of Representatives. In 1908, Taft won continuing the Teddy Roosevelt legacy while the Democratic Party picked up three seats in the House. In 1988, Bush won continuing the Reagan legacy while the Democrats picked up two seats. In 1916 when Woodrow Wilson won re-election the Republicans gained twenty-one seats in the House. Kennedy and Clinton mark the only time in the 20th century when a new President from a different party did not increase his party’s representation in the House of Representatives.
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