Finally: The last one-termer, George H.W. Bush.

George H.W. Bush taking the oath from Chief Justice William Rehnquist on January 20, 1989.  Onlookers include House Speaker Jim Wright, Senator Ted Stevens, boyish-lookingVice President Dan Quayle,  and Bush’s wife Barbara. 

Two years after becoming president, George H.W. Bush assembled and led a multi-national military coalition against Saddam Hussein in the first Persian Gulf War, successfully ejecting Iraq from Kuwait with minimal US casualties and a prompt exit.  In its wake, April 1991, Bush’s popularity soared to 89 percent, the 2d highest ever recorded by the Gallop Poll.  (Click here for the historical numbers.)  The highest score, 90 percent, would go to Bush’s son George W. after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

But by June 1992, just one year later, Bush’s poll number collapsed to 29 percent — an amazing 60 point drop.  A few months later, he lost his presidency to Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.  

What happened?  How did all that popularity disappear?  The lessons — two of them — are written in big red letters (literally): 

  • First, polls lie.  And lying polls can lull a president into the politician’s worst enemy – complacency.
  • Second, budget deficits matter, sometimes more than wars.

Son of a US Senator (Prescott Bush, D.-Conn.), youngest Navy pilot in World War II, a Yale graduate, self-made Texas oilman, and two-term congressman,  George H.W. Bush in the 1970s was given the chance by Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald Ford to fill four key posts that made him a national figure: Ambassador to the UN, Republican Party chairman, chief US diplomat in China, and Director of the CIA.  In 1980, he ran well enough against Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination that Reagan gave him the VP spot, a role that Bush filled loyally for eight years before winning his own presidency in 1988.   

By 1992, Bush had used his presidency to become an accomplished world leader, presiding over not just the Persian Gulf War but also the collapse of Soviet Russia and other Communist dictatorships and a quick invasion of Panama — all handled cleanly.      

Unfortunately for Bush, however, this was not quite the right mix for American politics.  American votes elect American presidents — not the world — and global feats often play second fiddle to local issues.  Republican conservatives never quite trusted Bush, who had famously referred to Reagan’s tax cut plans in 1980 as “voodoo economics.”   Then add in a few headaches under Bush’s watch like these–

  • The collapse of the savings and loan industry, which required a clean-up costing taxpayers an estimated $500 billion, with scandals galore.  
  • The nomination to the Supreme Court of Clarence Thomas, the most controversial in modern history, complete with an ugly sex-harrassment scandal played out on national TV.
  • Finally, in late 1991, a six-month economic recession pushing unemployment to 7.8 percent and Americans in poverty to 14.2 percent.  Voters still felt pain into the 1992 campaign season. 

Ross Period explaining the budget definit in 1992.

And then there was the deficit.  A point of passion?  Absolutely !!  

During the 1980s, US federal budget deficits had ballooned — a product of Reagan-era tax cuts combined with failure to control spending that caused national debt to triple during this era, from $900 billion to almost $3 trillion.  (It still sounds quint next to today’s mid-2011 debt of $13.5 trillion, but that’s another story.)    

Bush wanted to confront this problem, but he had tired his own hands during the 1988 campaign with his famous pledge: “Read my lips!  New new taxes!”  In the end, Bush broke this pledge and approved a $500 billion deficit reduction package in1990 that included tax hikes.  Click here for more about the pledge.

Breaking the pledge was bad enough, but then came something worse: Ross Perot.  

Perot, a cranky self-made Texas billionaire (founder of computer giant EDS), fed up with Washington incompetence, decided to launch his own self-financed independent presidential campaign in 1992 based on his own version of home-spun economic virtues: balanced budget, trade protection for US jobs, and direct town-hall-style democracy.  Partial to CNN’s Larry King, he came to interviews and debates armed with charts and graphs to explain just how badly the deficit was hurting everyone in the country.  

Bush seemed lost in the crossfire, worsened by his disdain for what he called “the vision thing.”  Perot won 19.7 million votes (about 18 percent)  — the best popular-vote showing by any third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.  This allowed Clinton to win with a 43% plurality. (See full results here.)

And that sky-high, 89 percent poll numbers after the Persian Gulf War?  They simply melted — like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz.  They had been a mirage, what pollsters call a “rally around the leader” affect in times of crisis.  They had only served to hide Bush’s weakness and allow him to get caught flat-footed and out-hustled by hungry Democrats. 

Finally — Lesson for Obama?

Stay tuned for the series finale — lessons for Barack Obama in 2012.   Coming tomorrow morning.  I  promise!!

One thought on “Finally: The last one-termer, George H.W. Bush.

  1. It should be noted Ross Perot spent $60 million on his campaign, mostly for the TV time he filled with budget talks. He surged into a virtual three-way tie in the polls, and then abruptly withdrew from the race. (He resumed campaigning to garner that 19%). More importantly, his advertising money scared the living bejesus out of Bill Clinton and many other Democrats, who shortly changed their spend-and-elect posture because of Perot. They began to pose as budget hawks, and that retooling served them well until the elevation of Nancy Pelosi to Speaker in January 2007. At that point the resumed their spend-and-elect policies with a vengeance.

Comments are closed.