Why the Republicans Lost the Presidency

Jeffrey Poelvoorde

June 16, 2014

What is certain is that President Bush did not present forcefully or consistently the case for the preferability of Republican governance. While the American people need to hear candidates for the presidency contest their respective qualifications and personal suitability for the office, the people need much more to hear explained the direction the country is to travel.

Why did President Bush lose the Presidential election? Did the hostile and aggrieved media poison his chances by pushing forward negative stories about his administration or by painting an overly glum view of the economy? Did a Republican Convention heavily weighted towards the right scare off moderate Democrats who had found a home in the Reagan Coalition? Did an erratic but charismatic Ross Perot crystallize voter frustration with existing conditions and make a Clinton plurality possible? Was it simply a slow-growth economy insinuating a vague unease into the minds of voters that translated into a distrust of President Bush’s ability to deliver a recovery? All of the above may have contributed something to the Democratic victory in November. In truth, however, President Bush lost the election because he did not run as a Republican.

What a strange thing to argue! Yet, President Bush did not frame the issues of the campaign in terms of the (still) most reliable framework for voters to frame their electoral choices: the intelligent simplification of complex issues of government into intelligible choice of party. Governor Clinton and the Democrats, however, did. Repeatedly hitting the electorate with a few simple themes couched in terms of party competition and choice, they argued that the country was weaker, poorer and unfairer than it was before the Republicans took the White House twelve years ago—deftly abstracting from Democratic domination of Congress during most of the same period. In doing so, Governor Clinton successfully projected responsibility for the nation’s frustrations, together with some of the anti-incumbency sentiment, onto the Bush Administration and the Republican Party.

Some might be inclined to argue that President Bush’s woes were self-inflicted, not in the sense that he failed to run like a Republican, but that he failed to govern like one. Yet, President Bush’s record was more defensible in this regard than his conservative critics suppose. In fact, the President’s style and content of governing were not easily distinguishable from Ronald Reagan’s. One could detect the same pragmatism, the same flexibility, the same tendency to speak somewhat sharper principles than the actions embodying them revealed. And, when a clear course of action emerged in response to a challenge or threat, both men could demonstrate impressive capacities for decision, organization and drive; compare the invasion of Grenada with Desert Storm, for example. True, President Reagan was more successful in articulating a clearer vision of Republican principles. But it is less obvious that he succeeded in persuading substantially more Americans to identify with the Republican Party.

Nevertheless, this relative absence of a coherent rhetoric explaining and justifying (even moderate) Republican governance in President Bush’s presidency does point to the central error of the presidential campaign. In his administration, President Bush tended to assume, it seemed, that the American people would see what they needed to see about his policies without much elaboration, as if his and their policy instincts were simply harmonious. As a campaign strategy against Michael Dukakis in 1988, “self- presentation” as a substitute for Republican principles could work acceptably, given Governor Dukakis’s more discernibly liberal Democratic background and identity. Perhaps all President Bush needed to do was to point at his opponent, then to himself, and ask, “Who up here is more like what you are and what you believe in?” But faced with a more skillfully poised “centrist” Southern Democrat who had led (and quite visibly) the attempt within his party to pull back from the left, his campaign strategy made President Bush look pugnacious at best and evasive at worst.

Yet, the campaign started off respectably well. President Bush’s acceptance speech at the Republican Convention was remarkably cogent and well focused, concentrating exactly upon what an incumbent president in the middle of a sluggish economy would need to explain. The speech centered around three questions: What have we had for the past four years? What must change? Why would this be better for the country?

What have we had? A Republican Administration, to be sure, but no Republican governance. For four—no really eight—years, we have had a Republican president restraining the expansive and liberalizing tendencies of a Democratic Congress. And (President Bush could plausibly claim), this Republican President was so anxious to establish an environment of bipartisan harmony in order to address the deficit that he made the most damaging move in his political career: agreeing to raise taxes in violation of an utterly unambiguous campaign pledge.

What must change? President Bush pointed to a different kind of change than that advocated by Governor Clinton: the problem was not a Republican in the White House but the Democrats in the Congress. So, he urged Americans to “clean the House,” to give him a Republican majority. Such a turnabout in the legislature probably would not have occurred, but at least President Bush could plausibly argue that he had a coherent view of “change.”

Why would this be better for the country? President Bush placed the Democratic platform squarely in the camp of governance that was being rapidly abandoned by societies enervated and nearly ruined by decades of socialist experimenting: centralized administration of society’s functions, the command economy and egalitarian rhetoric and policy. The Democratic Party, he argued, still believes—and so does their “centrist” candidate—that the way to national prosperity, strength and justice is greater regulation, greater redistribution and protectionism. “Divided government” could be frustrating, but undivided Democratic governance would be worse, while Republican governance was the country’s best hope for recovery and advancement.

But as the debates came and went and the election approached, President Bush increasingly abandoned these clearly-enunciated themes and concentrated upon attacking Governor Clinton’s personal credibility. Occasionally sounding shrill and repetitive, occasionally witty and boisterous, he nevertheless appeared increasingly detached from the larger issues of the campaign. Other than (ostensibly correctly) disputing from time to time that the economy was really as bad as “the worst economic mess in fifty years,” he rarely articulated broad themes of governance that could be identified as Republican. In response, for example, to Mr. Clinton’s mantra that “twelve years of trickle-down did not work,” President Bush tended to deflect attention back to “trust,” or “judgment,” or Governor Clinton’s war protests.

Did the nation in 1992 require Democratic governance as the solution to its ills, both material and spiritual? We shall certainly find out in the coming years, but the case for the Democrats appeared debatable before the election and now even more so. What is certain is that President Bush did not present forcefully or consistently the case for the preferability of Republican governance. While the American people need to hear candidates for the presidency contest their respective qualifications and personal suitability for the office, the people need much more to hear explained the direction the country is to travel. Regrettably, President Bush directed the people’s gaze towards himself rather than past himself. The people, in turn, anxious to see where the helmsman was pointing instead of hearing a discourse on his ability to point, turned away from the man for whom they probably wished they could have voted.

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