Lessons of the Bush Defeat - Introduction

Peter W. Schramm

June 16, 2014

It is possible to argue that in losing the election in 1992, George Bush lost an opportunity for the Republican Party to become the spokesman for the new majority of the next generation. This opportunity seems to have been created by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and his landslide re-election in 1984. Because Bush seemed a willing partner in Reagan’s presidency, many had hoped that with his election to the presidency in 1988 he would solidify and continue the revolution that had been named after Reagan. After all, liberalism seemed to be discredited, or at least in disarray, and the Democratic Party was no longer the intellectually interesting party. Old style liberalism had left the center, as the center moved to the GOP on both domestic and foreign issues. It no longer seemed out of place to speak of the Republicans as the party of the people.

The kind of conservatism that Ronald Reagan represented seemed to restore the confidence of the American people in themselves and the things for which they stood. This conservative helped restore belief in change and the future. Reagan described the direction of the change and drew up its road map. The interesting twist in his rhetoric elegantly pointed out that the change was nothing revolutionary, but rather a restoration of old principles guided by the steady constitutional character of the American people.

The election of George Bush in 1988 was a great opportunity. But soon after the election, and most obviously by 1990, it had become clear that Bush, amazingly enough, thought that Americans voted for him not because of his association with the Reagan years, but in spite of them. He disassociated himself and his administration from the most successful presidency since FDR. He did this both in speech and deed. The anchor that had held Bush steady and constant during the Reagan years no longer held and he seemed to be a rudderless boat without oars in the middle of stormy seas.

The Democratic Party, largely in disarray on the national level since 1972, had been attempting to get back in the game for some years, finally succeeding in 1992. The 1988 defeat was like the proverbial metaphysical two-by-four across the forehead: it focused their attention and they were forced to admit that liberalism no longer swayed the electorate. Once turned to the problem, they grasped the opportunity with both hands. They produced a candidate sufficiently dissimilar from the previous ones to give their argument about the new Democratic Party some plausibility. That Bill Clinton’s victory was not a landslide (indeed, he received a majority of the popular vote in only one state and only 43% of the vote nationwide) is not to the point. He won. And now the Democratic Party is in control of both Congress and the executive branch for the first time in twelve years. They are now being given the opportunity of revealing to the citizens what they stand for, and will be given the opportunity of being honored or blamed for their deeds.

Whether or not the Republican Party and its recent policies were discredited in this election will still have to be worked out. But it is clear that George Bush lost. And what is also clear is that whatever it was that he ended up standing for after disowning the Reagan view and years, he could not articulate. The American people were waiting for an expression of thoughtful philosophy and policy of government from the President. They didn’t get it and he didn’t get their votes. Herbert Hoover received a larger percentage of the votes in his re-election attempt in 1932 than did Bush. Bush made the classic political mistake of ignoring his once solid base and underestimating the opposition. He paid the price, and the only question now is whether the Republican Party will also be forced to pay. We will hear more of this.

We at the Ashbrook Center have spent many long hours in discussion and debate about the meaning of the election. Did Bush deserve to lose? Did Clinton deserve to win? Does Bush’s defeat really mean a defeat of post-1980s Republicanism? Has the Democratic Party really become a new, more moderate party? Would George Bush have lost if the Cold War had not ended? We not only had a great deal of fun, but I expect we learned much.

The attempt to answer these questions, both politically and academically, enticed some of our colleagues to offer a contribution to the discourse. As the discussion about the 1992 election has not ended, as it should not, we felt it would be appropriate to bring to the public an assortment of valued opinions for its consideration.

F. Clifton White, to whose memory this volume is dedicated, died on January 9, 1993. It is with a keen sense of loss that we publish his last reflections on electoral politics.


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