Bush 41’s presidency got off to a roaring start. He inherited a strong economy from Ronald Reagan and then successfully managed the end of the Cold War beginning when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, Bush organized an international coalition to defeat Saddam Hussein. The Persian Gulf War in February 1991 became the most successful U.S. military campaign since World War II. Bush’s approval ratings soared, as did his chances for winning reelection. Major Democratic figures such as Al Gore, Dick Gephardt and Bill Bradley all opted not to challenge him.
But a recession was already underway before the Gulf War and unemployment was growing. Bush had also broken his pledge not to raise taxes as part of a compromise 1990 deficit reduction package that he agreed to with congressional Democrats, alienating conservatives who had always been suspicious of him. As Americans turned their focus to domestic politics in 1991, Bush’s political support rapidly declined.
Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who had entered the race when others wouldn’t take the risk, emerged as the Democratic nominee, albeit with the baggage of accusations of adultery and draft-dodging. Texas billionaire Ross Perot also joined the race in the spring as an independent, introducing another unpredictable element into the race.
After Perot dropped out in July, Clinton seized the lead. Bush entered the Republican convention in Houston needing to alter the dynamics of the contest. Just as Trump has sought to shift the debate away from the pandemic to the supposed economic radicalism of the Biden/Harris ticket, Bush moved to change the subject from the slow economic recovery to the supposed cultural radicalism of Clinton/Gore, trying to nail down the support of his base. Turning several prime-time speaking slots over to the religious right, his campaign made “family values” the central theme of the convention.
Most famously, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, who challenged Bush from the right in the primaries, delivered his “culture war” speech, declaring, “There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.” Buchanan added, “And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton and Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side.” While this rhetoric may have electrified the conservative base and solidified their support for Bush, many in the GOP feared it would alienate the centrists who would decide the presidency. “Pat’s message is not a very appealing one for most Americans,” commented Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), “and it’s not a winning one.”
Still trailing in October, Bush took an even more drastic step — one that was decidedly out of step with his serious, patrician background — when he seemed to imply that the Arkansas governor was some kind of Manchurian candidate. After conservative Republican congressmen raised the subject of Clinton’s antiwar activities overseas, Bush questioned why he had traveled to the Soviet Union as a student in 1969. “I don’t want to tell you what I really think, because I don’t have the facts. But to go to Moscow one year after Russia crushed Czechoslovakia, not remember what you saw?” Bush told Larry King, “I really think the answer is, level with the American people.” While Bush and his surrogates had certainly employed hardball campaign tactics in his 1988 race against Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, this insinuation went even beyond the attacks regarding Willie Horton and the Pledge of Allegiance four years earlier.
In this case, however, Bush quickly retreated amid a fierce backlash, as the media — wary after the Bush allegations in the previous race — focused coverage on his campaign’s tactics. A Bush aide told the New York Times that “it backfired,” adding, “The intent was to suggest that this was part of Clinton’s efforts to mislead about his past, not that something clandestine occurred in Moscow. But that’s the way it came off. The interpretation, frankly, bombed.”
Clinton responded sharply to these accusations, invoking Bush’s father’s opposition to McCarthyism in the 1950s during the first presidential debate: “But when Joe McCarthy went around this country attacking people’s patriotism he was wrong. He was wrong. And a senator from Connecticut stood up to him named Prescott Bush. Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy, you were wrong to attack my patriotism.”
Bush’s language grew even harsher as Election Day approached. He referred to Clinton’s running mate, Gore, first as “Ozone Man” and then simply as “ozone” because of his environmentalism. Trying to return the focus to his successes with the Cold War and the Gulf War, Bush declared that “my dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos,” though he did apologize for that rhetorical flourish.
Bush continued to attack Clinton’s character and labeled the Clinton/Gore ticket as extreme left wingers, just as Trump has tried to do with Biden/Harris. These tactics may have borne some fruit as the polls seemed to be closing in the last week. This momentum, however, stalled when Iran-contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh announced the indictment of Caspar Weinberger, Reagan’s secretary of defense, a few days before the election. Weinberger’s notes suggested that Bush had greater knowledge of the arms for hostages swap than he had previously acknowledged, forcing him to discuss the issue again.
Clinton would go on to defeat Bush 43 percent to 37 percent, with Perot, who had reentered the contest, garnering 19 percent. Bush’s showing in the popular vote was the poorest by an incumbent president since William Howard Taft in 1912.
At the end of the day, George H.W. Bush was no Donald Trump as his behavior was practically polite by comparison. But it does show how facing the loss of the world’s most powerful office can lead one to engage in more extreme rhetoric and behavior. And while thrilling to the president’s base, such rhetoric does little to appeal to swing voters or to change a president’s fortune.