Two-Party Politics in America

By Thomas, David N. | Contemporary Review, September 1992 | Go to article overview

Two-Party Politics in America


Thomas, David N., Contemporary Review


CAMPAIGN '92 marks the bicentennial of the unanimous re-election of George Washington as well as the centennial of the defeat of a Republican incumbent, Benjamin Harrison. It will be the fifty-second presidential election since the implementation of the United States Constitution in 1788. These campaigns have resulted in the selection of forty American presidents, only thirteen of whom have been re-elected to a second full four-year term. With a ninety per cent approval rating during Desert Storm last year, George Bush appeared to be well on his way to becoming the fourteenth incumbent to achieve that distinction. Perhaps he might have even come close to replicating the Washington achievement of 1792. After a steady decline in the polls, however, there is now the possibility of his sharing the Harrison fate of 1892 by becoming the tenth sitting president defeated in a re-election campaign. In that year the rise of the Populists split the Republican Party, allowing the Democrats to gain an upset victory over an incumbent president.

The sixty point drop in George Bush's approval rating has been one of the most significant developments of recent American presidential politics. Reasons for that presidential misfortune are complex. The victory over Iraq was almost simultaneous with the triumph over communism and the ending of the Cold War. Unfortunately for President Bush, those sweeping events of 1991 had the same effect as the terminations of the World Wars in 1918 and 1945 in shifting popular attention from diplomacy to domestic affairs. Observance of the fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Harbour at the end of last year further made the point that for most of this century Americans have been entangled in the problems of the world.

Suddenly in January of this year there was a clamorous, media-driven demand that full attention now be focused on domestic problems. It resulted in a growing consensus that in deference to the interests of the world, American political leadership had ignored growing problems in health care, education, the environment and the economy. In spite of the fact that solutions to these problems would cost enormous sums of money, there was also a growing demand that the awesome problem of the federal deficit be solved. The contradiction posed by those demands created a public frustration extremely damaging to the incumbent president who quickly plummeted in public opinion polls. To an almost unbelievable extent the hero of Desert Storm in 1991 became the political bete noire of 1992. The most common complaints against the President were that he had broken his pledge not to raise taxes and his alleged disinterest in the economy which had been troublesome since early 1990. As an ideological centrist, Bush was an easy target from both ends of the political spectrum. Many Americans seem to believe that the nation is economically declining and a change in political leadership is necessary.

When the campaign began in March, Bush became one of the few recent presidents ever to encounter serious intra-party opposition. A conservative journalist and former presidential speech writer in the Reagan administration, Patrick Buchanan, entered the presidential preferential primaries as a Republican. In the first contest in New Hampshire he received about a third of the votes, signalling the fact that the President was in serious political trouble. The last incumbent president running for re-election seriously challenged in the New Hampshire primary was Lyndon Johnson in 1968. He soon withdrew from the contest. Fortunately for President Bush, New Hampshire, a very conservative state, was Buchanan's most successful venture. As the primary season wore on, the challenger's support steadily declined.

Though badly crippled, Bush was soon assured of renomination long before the Convention in August. In spite of his renomination, an honour not denied an incumbent since 1884, Bush is starting this Fall's campaign without a strongly united party. …

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