"It's the Economy, Stupid." So read a sign in Governor Bill Clinton's Little Rock campaign office. The sluggish economy was President George H.W. Bush's Achilles heel in 1992, and his campaign never managed to respond adequately to the Clinton campaign's near-constant hammering on the state of the U.S. economy. Bush's inability to either fix the economy or convey to the American public a sense of caring led many voters to see him as out of touch.
"Read My Lips" Backlash
When Republican challenger Pat Buchanan won 34% of the primary vote in New Hampshire against incumbent President Bush, he held up a newspaper headline that read "Read Our Lips." A revolt of the Republican Party's conservative wing had begun when Bush reneged on his tax pledge and in 1992 those sentiments threatened to make Bush a one-termer. By breaking his "No New Taxes" pledge, Bush had alienated members of the rapidly growing conservative movement. In a typical election, this revolt may have been limited to the primary season. But with a sizeable portion of conservative voters unhappy with Bush, the time was right for a third-party challenge.
Ross Perot, a self-made billionaire and businessman, stormed onto the scene in 1992, and ultimately become the most successful third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in the election of 1912. His campaign had a strange start. Appearing on Larry King Live in January, Perot told viewers that if they did the legwork to put him on the ballot in all 50 states, he would run for president. The fact that he had not technically announced himself a candidate did not stop him from coming in ahead of both Clinton and Bush in a Time/CNN poll in mid-May.
A Fiscal Conservative
Perot made the focus of his campaign fixing the economy. He aired infomercials detailing his economic ideas, complete with charts and graphs to illustrate his plan. Perot offered conservatives angry at Bush -- those who had supported Buchanan in the primary -- an alternative. In July, Perot, who had never officially announced a candidacy, announced that he was pulling out of the race. He was back in October, this time officially announcing himself a candidate. In November, he would capture 19 percent of the vote, and cost Bush a second term.
The Bush campaign of 1992 never had the organization or consistency of message that had been the hallmark of his 1988 campaign. Chief among the factors contributing to the seeming disarray was the absence of Lee Atwater, the firebrand political operative who had devised Bush's winning strategy in the 1988 campaign. Atwater had died of brain cancer the previous year. Many were expecting Secretary of State James Baker, who had managed Bush's 1980 and 1988 campaigns, to return to the task in 1992. However, Baker wanted to remain Secretary of State for as long as possible. It was only in September that Baker finally left the State Department for campaign headquarters. In Baker's absence, no one person stepped in to fill a leadership vacuum within Bush's team. One campaign aide recalls that late in the campaign, the team had still not come up with an answer to the most basic question, "Why should George Bush be elected president?"
End of an Era
In the end, Bush was undone by Perot, his campaign staff, and more. He received only 37% of the popular vote -- just two years after he had recorded 89% approval ratings, at the end of the Gulf War. The end of the Bush presidency signaled the end of an era in American politics. Bush was the last of America's leaders from the World War II generation, and Bill Clinton became the first baby boomer president.
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