I wrote the following in 1992.
One could argue that presidential elections are LOST, more than they are WON. One side self-destructs, and the other side mostly benefits from the self-destruction.
The right self-destructed in 1976 with the Ford-Reagan fight, the left self-destructed in 1980 with the Carter-Kennedy fight, in 1984 with the Mondale-Hart-Jackson fight, and in 1988 with the Dukakis- Jackson-Gephardt fight. The right self-destructed in 1992 with the Bush-Buchanan fight, the right self-destructed again in 1996 with the division between the no-tax, supply side, anti-government libertarians and the Wall Street-oriented, limited government, deficit hawks, and a general lack of enthusiasm for Bob Dole among party actvists.
But such analysis is too facile. Take 1992, for example. One could point to lots of reasons for Clinton's victory and Bush's loss. In future years, the results of the 1992 election may look, in retrospect, preordained. After 12 years of Republican rule, it might seem only natural that the Democrats would regain the Presidency. But events worked against George Bush, just as they had worked against Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Gerald Ford in 1976:
1. If President Bush's key political operative Lee Atwater had not died a premature death from cancer, Bush would have been in better shape going into the 1992 election. Atwater kept conservative activists in line behind Bush early in his presidency, though they were distrustful of a "born-again" Episcopalian who rather suddenly turned pro-life on the issue of abortion. Bush's re-election campaign would not have been so disorganized and rudderless with Atwater around to direct it.
2. If the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill debacle hadn't occurred, 1992 might not have turned out to be "the year of the woman" politically. Those Senate hearings outraged thousands of women, politically energized them and made them more determined than ever to break up the "old boy" political network.
3. If Saddam Hussein hadn't invaded Kuwait, Bush might have won re-election. Ironically, if there had been no Gulf war, Bush might have paid more attention to his conservative base and to the recession's impact on average Americans. His extraordinarily high poll ratings in the aftermath of the Gulf War gave him a false sense of political security. His public approval was a mile wide but an inch deep. Ultimately, it demonstrates the folly of governing by polls.
4. If the Soviet Union had not collapsed when it did, Bush might have been able to hold onto those pro-defense, anti-communist Reagan Democrats. Ironically, the Republican Party's policy victory--bankrupting the communists by maintaining the arms race--turned into a political defeat. With communism no longer seen as an imminent threat to America, "Reagan Democrats" returned to the fold in 1992.
5. If Senator John Heinz (R-PA), a Bush ally, had not been killed in a plane crash in 1991, no special election would have been held for his Senate seat. Democratic political consultants James Carville and Paul Begalla used Harris Wofford's campaign for Heinz's seat as a referendum on health care and on the presidency of George Bush. Wofford's surprise victory proved to be a valuable model for the 1992 Clinton campaign.
Deeper Seeds of Bush Defeat
Perhaps without these five random events that were largely out of Bush's control, he might have won re-election. Perhaps if he'd had more of Richard Nixon's insecurity and obsessiveness, he might have won re-election. But to do what?
The bottom line in 1992 was that the Republican Party was tired of governing, tired of maintaining the ideological discipline necessary to govern, tired of compromise. Like the Democrats of earlier years, it needed to be out of office to regroup and rethink, to create a vision and a real hunger to govern again. For without vision and hunger, the result is governmental gridlock.
Bush was 65 years old, he had held national elective office for 12 years, and his team was intellectually stale if not exhausted. He tried to steer a middle ground--he supported the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Civil Rights Act of 1990; affirmative action, the Clean Air Act. These decisions offended conservative activists. Many decided they'd rather Republicans lose the Presidency than be forced into defending policies of the "eastern liberal establishment."
The seeds of Bush's demise can be traced back to the 1988 campaign. Needing to fire up distrustful Reagan conservatives, Bush made his infamous "no new taxes" pledge. Without such a pledge of loyalty to conservative principle, right-wingers might have sat on their hands. Bush's advisors knew the demands of the right-wing were unrealistic. They knew there was a good chance Bush would have to break the pledge. But Bush opted for short-term political gain, figuring he could finesse the tax issue once in office. Later, his soaring Gulf War popularity led him to believe the public would forgive and forget the tax increase.
This attempt to separate politics from governing led to deep voter cynicism about Bush in 1992, and effectively eliminated "trust" as an issue he could use against Bill Clinton. When he tried the same negative campaigning that had worked for him in 1988--the voters were wise and it backfired.
"I think that you should have mentioned that the large deficit contributed to the Bush defeat as well. To help end the endless criticism of his character (Clinton), he kept pounding away on economic issues and the high deficit. The Democratic Primaries in '92 helped make reducing the deficit a major issue. Bush had no plans to reduce it and didn't think that it was going to be a major political issue until it was too late. You were certaintly right that Bush thought that he was going to coast to victory. Usually after a war, a President's popularity rises sharply but Bush didn't realize that it couldn't last for more than a year." -- Mike Carr, Arlington, VA.