Inevitable Becomes Ineffective

The Field Shifts, Bush Does Not...

In the first part of 1991, very few observers believed that a Democrat--any Democrat--would be able to defeat President Bush in 1992.  The Gulf War had boosted Bush's popularity to stratospheric levels [1], and the track record of recent Democratic nominees did not bode well for the party's prospects of gaining the White House.

Five months after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, following expiration of a U.N. Security Council deadline, the U.S.-led coalition launched air attacks on Iraq and occupied Kuwait.  President Bush's speech from the Oval Office on the evening of January 16 attracted one of the largest television audiences in U.S. history.  On the home front, yellow ribbons in windows, on doors, and atop flags symbolized support for our troops.  Images of Patriot missiles and smart bombs and news of the quick battle in the desert produced a renewed sense of pride in our Armed Forces and our country.  The Gallup Poll of February 28-March 3, 1991 showed Bush's approval rating at 89-percent, the highest ever recorded. 

Bush's numbers remained above 70-percent into August, and this had the effect of freezing the maneuverings of potential Democratic challengers for half a year.  With the exception of former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, who announced in the spring, would-be candidates adopted a wait-and-see approach.  Finally in September and October, the major Democratic hopefuls announced their candidacies.  Given the fates of Democratic nominees from Humphrey to Dukakis, one had to look hard to find grounds for optimism.  The outlook could perhaps best be summed up in the title of a book by Peter Brown, chief political writer for Scripps Howard News Service.  In Minority Party: Why Democrats Face Defeat in 1992 and Beyond, Brown argued that Democrats needed to regain the allegiance of the "forgotten middle class" if they were to win presidential elections in future.

As 1991 wore on, however, domestic concerns moved to the fore.  The House banking scandal and the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings were followed by Harris Wofford's upset win in the November 5 Pennsylvania Senate special election.  On December 3, as the White House geared up for the re-election campaign, chief of staff John Sununu submitted his resignation.  The Democratic National Committee even played upon the president's supposed inattentiveness to the domestic front by selling thousands of "Anywhere But America Tour" tee-shirts.

By December, a Gallup Poll showed that only 22-percent of respondents approved of Bush's handling of the economy.  Actually, signs of weakness had been present all along; in March 1991, while Bush was enjoying record approval ratings, approval for his handling of the economy was 37-percent.[2]  A recurrent theme in the 1988 campaign, Bush's participation in the "longest peacetime expansion in modern history," was gone.

Meanwhile, dramatic events across the Atlantic were changing the playing field upon which the 1992 campaign would be fought.  In 1988, Bush had emphasized his foreign policy experience, an important credential in facing up to the Soviet threat.  In 1989 and 1990, communist systems unraveled at a dizzying pace in half a dozen countries in Central and Eastern Europe, opening the way for democratic elections, capitalism and other Western influences.  By Christmas Day of 1991, even the Soviet Union itself was gone, following the resignation of President Mikhail Gorbachev.  The bear was no longer in the woods, if it ever had been, and national security, traditionally a Republican strong point, would be less of an issue than in the past.[3]

A savvy strategist like Lee Atwater might have been able to adapt to the changed circumstances, but Bush appointed what one campaign staffer termed "country club friends" and a Washington Post writer described as "the clean fingernails set" to head his campaign.  The triumvirate of Robert Mosbacher, a fundraiser, Bob Teeter, a pollster, and Fred Malek, who some described as "a political hack," was announced on December 5 although Bush did not officially announce his re-election bid until February 12.

The Buchanan Challenge
In New Hampshire, one did not need statistics on commercial vacancy rates, lost jobs or the shrinking private sector to see the impact of the recession.  Closed shops in every town told the story.  Amid these difficult conditions columnist and commentator Pat Buchanan found fertile ground, as he launched his "America First" campaign on December 10. 

Buchanan hit Bush for violating his 1988 "no new taxes" pledge and called on New Hampshire voters to send the president a message.  The "Read My Lips" television spots that Buchanan ran in the state were to be echoed by the Clinton/Gore campaign in the fall.  Meanwhile Bush, after initially experimenting with an "I care" theme, took to running against Congress, calling on Democrats to act by the March 20 date he had set out in his State of the Union address.  On primary day, February 18, the Buchanan brigades stunned Bush with a 37 percent showing (initially reported to be 41 percent).  Buchanan never achieved this level in subsequent primaries, and his campaign was essentially finished by the Michigan primary.

Buchanan reappeared in August with his prime time convention address.  The decision to accord Buchanan a prime time slot despite his paucity of delegates continues to be second-guessed; many observers later pointed to the conservative commentator's biting speech as being one of the factors that alienated potential Bush voters.  Buchanan maintains that any damage that occurred was the result of Bush distancing himself from his remarks.  In any event, the effects of Buchanan's run should only be considered in the context of myriad internal weaknesses of the Bush effort.

The Quayle Factor
Perhaps no politician has had as difficult an entry onto the national scene as did Dan Quayle in 1988.  Quayle served the President loyally, but in 1992 he was still seen as a liability in many quarters.[4]  One indicator of this could perhaps be seen in the first of the re-election campaign's logos, which, intentionally or otherwise, de-emphasized the "Quayle."  While "Bush" appeared in a bold white typeface, "Quayle," underneath in a thin red typeface, almost disappeared against the blue background.  (The effect was particularly noticeable in black and white photographs of the signs).

A Vice President is in a position to speak more bluntly and directly than is the President.  In May and June, Quayle gave a number of speeches that drew considerable attention.  In the Murphy Brown speech, delivered in the wake of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, he called for a public discussion of moral values and criticized the fictional television character for "mocking the importance of fathers," generating a flurry of stories in the media.  A few weeks later the Vice President denounced the "cultural elite," declaring that it "avoids responsibility and flees from the consequences of its self-indulgence."

By July rumors about Quayle's place on the ticket were such that Bush had to address them.  During a July 22 photo op, Bush said that Quayle's place was "very certain."  That same night on "Larry King Live," the Vice President said, "[I]f I thought I was hurting the ticket I'd be gone."  Discontent with Quayle persisted among some, however.  At the end of July a former Republican Party state chairman from Florida ran a full-page ad in the Washington Post calling on the Vice President to "step aside."

1. David S. Broder and Richard Morris.  "Bush Popularity Surges with Gulf Victory."  Washington Post, March 6, 1991. and  RJ Reinhart. "George H.W. Bush Retrospective."  Gallup,  Dec. 1, 2018.
2. Response to the question, "Do you approve or disapprove of the way President Bush is handling the economy/economic conditions?" for 12/5-8/91 and 3/7-10/91.

3. See for example: R.W. Apple Jr.  "White House Race Is Recast: No Kremlin to Run Against," New York Times, February 6, 1992, page 1.  (5th of a 6-part series “After the Cold War”).

4. The question of Quayle's position on the ticket arose periodically, sometimes following Bush health episodes (May 5, 1991 when he experienced irregular heartbeat and Jan. 8, 1992 when he fell ill at banquet in Japan, later attributed to acute gastroenteritis).
See for example:
Kevin Phillips.  "Looking Toward 1992: If Dan Quayle Is Dumped, GOP Starts a Game of Musical Chairs."  Washington Post, May 6, 1990. 
William Schneider.  "The Quayle problem returns."  Tampa Bay Times, May 10, 1991.
--.  "Bush Wanted Quayle Off '92 Ticket but Refused to Push Him, Book Says."  Associated Press, October 16, 1994.

More Resources
C-SPAN: George H.W. Bush 1991-1992  |  C-SPAN: all George H.W. Bush

George H.W. Bush Presidential Library & Museum
Museum Permanent Exhibit: "A Tough Campaign"