Here Come the Democrats
Thomas, David N., Contemporary Review
FOR the fifth time this century America's active party has come to power with an agenda for change. It is replacing at least for a while the Republicans, historically perceived as symbols of stability and the status quo. Since 1912 those Democratic intervals, generally characterized by flurries of legislative initiatives, have lasted on the average for ten years. Democratic leaders have included Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, counted among this country's most world renowned political personalities whose administrations are remembered for activism and reform. Ironically, they came to office almost exclusively preoccupied with a domestic agenda only to become embroiled in diplomatic entanglements. After twelve years of Republican rule the nation is bracing itself for yet another outpouring of new domestic programmes and social experimentation. And once again at the outset of a Democratic era there is relatively little anticipation of concern over the problems of the world.
'Campaign '92' was the fifty-second presidential election. It was the twenty-seventh example of an incumbent seeking another term. Of those, seventeen were successful. George Bush became the tenth sitting president defeated in a re-election campaign. While his failure can be attributable in part to problems faced by most of his unfortunate predecessors, such as economic hard times and intra-party rivalries, Bush's defeat was extraordinary. Less than a year before the election the President seemed unbeatable largely because of Desert Storm. At one point he had an approval rating of nearly ninety per cent. All of the prominent opposition leaders considered his most likely challengers decided not to become candidates. There seemed to be no compelling reason for a change in presidential leadership. But soon after the start of the campaign year, President Bush experienced a precipitous drop in popularity unprecedented in American political history. At the end his defeat was all but inevitable.
Yet for awhile, even at the end of the campaign, there seemed to be a slight prospect that George Bush and the Republicans might replicate the feat of John Major and the Conservatives last Spring and stage an upset. It was the third time since 1945 that Britain and America were holding national elections to select a Prime Minister and a President in the same year. On the two earlier occasions, 1964 and 1976, the Anglo-American electorates voted in ideological concert, selecting Labour and Democrats at the same time. In the first post-Cold War elections in both countries, some American pundits assumed that after the surprising Conservative upset, American voters would again follow the British example and in the end choose the more conservative presidential contender. Instead they turned out of office an incumbent who seemed preoccupied with foreign affairs, insisting that the ending of the Cold War did not mean elimination of danger in the world. President Bush was unable to make an adjustment in his image of a leader almost exclusively preoccupied with diplomacy.
By far the greatest issue of Campaign '92 was the economy which beginning in 1990 was marked by a slower rate of growth and a consequent elevation in unemployment. The ending of the Cold War caused a vast reduction in government expenditures on armaments that had a radiating impact, especially on the economies of California and New England. Particularly affected were professional groups and white collar workers who make up the heart of the Republican Party. Those economic troubles were portrayed by the media as a major recession in spite of statistical data to the contrary. Some commentators even compared the recession of the early 1990s to the Great Depression. The Bush campaign was unable to convey the idea that given the enormity of the impact of the ending of the Cold War, the economy was, perhaps, in relatively good condition. Too many people of the middle class were adversely affected by the tortuous transition occurring in American society. It was relatively easy, therefore, for the Democratic challenger to make the case that it was time for a change in the presidency.
Delayed political response to a year-old United States Senate hearing on the qualifications of a Supreme Court nominee became an extraordinary problem which the President's re-election campaign seemed helpless to solve. In the Autumn of 1991 President Bush nominated Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court. He was a black conservative jurist perceived as an opponent of Roe v. Wade, a 1973 decision guaranteeing the constitutional right of abortion on demand. The Reagan-Bush presidencies were pledged to reserve that decision by placing anti-abortion advocates on the court. But securing the necessary approval of such advocates by Senate liberals had proven to be difficult. By nominating a minority advocate, President Bush was apparently trying to attract liberal senators loath to oppose a black nominee. The manoeuvre seemed to be working without undue difficulty when suddenly there appeared a black law professor, Anita Hill, who claimed that Thomas had sexually intimidated her while serving as her superior in a government agency. In some of the most explosive and unseemly testimony ever seen on television, Hill ignited a feminist crusade to nominate women for Congress in Campaign '92. Thomas was narrowly confirmed, but the outcome was an unprecedented number of females elected to public office. In the process the percentage of women in the national electorate rose to fifty-four and the proportion of them supporting Bush dropped from fifty to thirty-seven per cent between 1988 and 1992. Actually, male supporters of the President dropped by an even greater percentage. Nevertheless, many observers cite women in the electorate as one of the factors affecting the outcome in the presidential election.
In order to win re-election, President Bush needed once again to attract the Reagan followers whose support the Republicans had largely maintained in defeating Michael Dukakis in 1988. He was only partially successful in achieving that objective. By receiving a significant plurality of southern white voters, for example, the President was indeed able to win most of the deep south in Campaign '92 by narrow margins, losing only Georgia and Louisiana. But another segment of the national Reagan coalition consisted of white protestants whose support for the President dropped from sixty-six per cent in 1988 to only forty-six in 1992. Finally, there is the so-called Religious Right which strongly supported Reagan in the 1980s by overwhelming margins. White 'born-again' Christians making up seventeen per cent of the electorate constitutes the heart of that group. Its support for Bush fell from eighty-one to sixty-one per cent between 1988 and 1992. The President was unable to convey to those voters a strong, heart-felt commitment in his stated opposition to abortion on demand and support for voluntary prayer in public schools, two positions important in forging the Reagan coalition of the 1980s. Billy Graham's unusually prominent role in the Bush Inaugural ceremony four years ago was apparently not enough to hold the solid support of America's evangelical Christians.
Yet another segment of the Reagan coalition was the traditional Right Wing, conservatives sometimes called 'Country Club Republicans'. Inability to keep the unified support of that element in his party may have been the greatest political failure of the Bush presidency. The decline in support by them was evident early in the campaign year when a Right Wing television journalist, Pat Buchanan, entered the Republican presidential primaries. Serious intra-party challengers have always been the signals for impending disaster for a sitting president seeking re-election. The principal cause of the Right Wing's abandonment of the Bush campaign was the President's breaking of his 1988 pledge not to raise taxes. A second conservative complaint against the President was his eventual support for a Civil Rights Act the perceived effect of which would be the maintenance of racial quotas in the work place. Initially, Bush had vetoed that legislation but later succumbed to mounting pressure and signed a bill similar to one previously rejected. That capitulation accentuated the President's image of a leader without deeply held convictions on issues of ideological importance to large elements of his own party. The base of his support, therefore, steadily eroded over the course of his presidency.
The most unusual feature of Campaign '92 was the Perot candidacy, the impact of which will be pondered for years to come. Ross Perot has been a Texas tycoon sputtering about on the periphery of American public life for about twenty-five years always in search of media attention. Given the uncertainties and frustrations of the American electorate in the early post-Cold War era, it was perhaps inevitable that this bizarre character would make an appearance on the stage of presidential politics which since 1832 has attracted a strange assortment of publicity seekers. The factor making the Perot candidacy different, however, was his immense wealth and his willingness to spend vast sums of his own money to gain attention. Unlike the British electoral system, there can be no limits on a person's expenditure of personal resources in a political campaign because of the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution's guarantee of free speech. Having neither party affiliation nor ideological identification, Perot was able to appeal to an extraordinary variety of voters many of whom were attracted to the political process for the first time. The fact that he was without political experience and understanding of public affairs seems actually to have been appealing to many Americans who have become disenchanted with the political mainstream and its failure to solve such problems as crime, the drug culture and the public debt. In the end Perot was supported by nineteen per cent, the second largest level of support by a third candidate in American history. But in yet another display of America's electoral stability, the Perot candidacy was unable to win a single electoral vote. The electoral college of 538 members is almost inextricably tied to two party politics. There is no way of knowing what effect Perot had on the outcome. While it seems apparent that he cost the President the electoral votes in Ohio and Missouri, it could plausibly be argued that because of Perot. Bill Clinton lost Texas and Florida. In either event it is a fact that for the third time in a hundred years, a strong third candidacy was followed by the defeat of a sitting Republican president.
In the end the most powerful force contributing to Bush's defeat was the alternating rhythm of American presidential politics. Since 1832 when major party national conventions began making presidential nominations, there has been a steady rotation in party control of the White House. On the average neither party has held the presidency for more than nine years in spite of occasional longer intervals. After twelve years of the Reagan-Bush era, it was perhaps inevitable that in light of that record of alternation, President Bush was from the outset on the defensive in spite of his success in Desert Storm.
Another electoral theory long advanced by the eminent historian, Arthur Schlesinger, is that the American people in thirty year intervals choose presidents committed to change and reform. Beginning in 1900 there was an era of progressivism followed by war and a decade of conservatism and reaction in the 1920s. Then in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s there came the New Deal followed by a period of retrenchment and the status quo. After Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson ignited eruptions of legislative initiatives in the 1960s reminiscent of progressivism and the New Deal. Now in the 1990s, Schlesinger believes, the nation is again ripe for innovation ushered in by a Democratic Administration. Bill Clinton brings to the presidency a brand of leadership similar to Johnson's 'Great Society'. He also shares with Lyndon Johnson an absence of experience in foreign affairs. Among the foremost tragedies of American life in the twentieth century have been the failures of reform-minded Democratic presidents faced with overwhelming problems in diplomacy for which they were inexperienced and unprepared.
|David N. Thomas is Professor of History at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia.~…
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Publication information: Article title: Here Come the Democrats. Contributors: Thomas, David N. - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 262. Issue: 1525 Publication date: February 1993. Page number: 72+. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 1993 Gale Group.
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