Why Bush failed

Peggy Noonan

November 06, 1992|By Peggy Noonan

WHEN voters imagined picking up the paper Wednesday morning and seeing a headline that said "Bush Wins In Close Race," their hearts sank. When they imagined "President Clinton!" their hearts raced.

Forced to choose between melancholy and nervousness, they took the latter; it seemed the more awake, and so the more hopeful choice. But such thoughts only characterize the election; they don't explain it.

George Bush's fortunes in '92 were hurt, like his presidency, by a misunderstanding of what the voters did four years before. He thought the American people voted for him in 1988. They didn't. They voted for the continuation of basic Reaganesque policies, which is what Mr. Bush said he stood for.

He vowed in '88 to keep the size of government down. He let it grow. He said he would not raise taxes. He raised them. He said he'd resist the heavy weight of government. He allowed more regulation.

The voters who created the Reagan coalition abandoned Mr. Bush in '92 because they were never loyal to him; they were loyal to the beliefs he espoused from 1981 through 1989.

Some will say Mr. Bush was done in by a bad convention and a bad campaign. But if both had gone better the outcome would have been the same.

And I don't think it all came down to the economy either. It's true Mr. Bush didn't have a good one, true he was late to see it and speak of it. But Ronald Reagan, who had a worse recession in '82, won by a landslide in '84. That was because he had clear beliefs based on what voters saw as common-sense principles. Mr. Bush sometimes seemed as if he had few beliefs that were not subject to shifts in the wind. At the end, voters thought he wasn't serious.

Serious people in public life stand for things and fight for them; the ensuing struggle is meant to yield up progress and improvement. Mr. Bush seemed embarrassed to believe. It left those who felt sympathy for him embarrassed to support him.

His economic wound was, to a significant extent, self-inflicted. It wasn't external forces that created the crisis, no mullah half a world away who took our people hostage. The 1990 budget deal did what Mr. Bush said Michael Dukakis would do -- impede growth and damage the economy.

The modern Republican Party stood on two pillars. The first was sober and effective anti-communism, the second was a principled small-government policy. History took the first from George Bush; he took the second from himself. Without the pillars he fell.

The president's great moment, the war against Iraq, made his problems fatal by obscuring them. Desert Storm gave the White House a false sense of security and encouraged carelessness. The staff was too dazed by the polls to see.

As president, Mr. Bush reverted to his behavior as vice president: He stopped seeing the connection between words and action. He did not communicate.

I used to wonder if, traumatized by what he saw as the Reagan White House's too great attention to the public part of the presidency, to the Rose Garden backdrops and the commemorative events, Mr. Bush concluded the public part was all show and not worthy of a sincere and honest man.

But the public part of the presidency, the persuading-in-the-pulpit part, is central to leadership. The worst thing is to lie to the people, but the second worst is to ignore them and not tell what you are doing.

In domestic affairs the president leaned on yesterday's men. The aides and Cabinet members who represented the new conservatism and the future of the party -- Jack Kemp, William Bennett, Vin Weber -- were given access and then ignored.

The president listened to those -- Richard Darman, Nicholas Brady -- who represented the "realistic" and "sophisticated" thinking of Republicans who came of age during Watergate. They thought they were on the losing side of history; they thought their job was not to win but to limit inevitable loss.

The president's choice here revived the old party divisions Mr. Reagan had healed and further sundered the Republican coalition.

After 12 years in power, the most talented Republicans were the most exhausted. They had lost touch with the grass roots when they used to be the grass roots.

Bill Clinton ran a creative campaign. Buses, Elvis, answering each attack with more and bigger verbal warheads. A lot of people find it hard not to daydream during his speeches -- for me it's like watching a soap opera; I can never quite follow the narrative -- but he made no major rhetorical mistakes.

His people were smart and hungry, and they had the press. The media were partial to Mr. Clinton not only because they lean toward liberalism but because they want a new story, a new headline, new news.

Finally, on the Republican side, the myth of the great campaign tacticians was revealed. A lot of them were jockeys who won because the horse they rode was fast.

Mr. Reagan carried them across the line; they didn't carry him. When they rode Mr. Bush, they failed; he couldn't win for them.

Those are the reasons for Mr. Bush's defeat. Back in '88, the Democrats around Michael Dukakis sized up Mr. Bush and history and said, "If we can't win this one we might as well find another country."

That was not true then but was true this time. The good news for Republicans is if you know what went wrong you can correct it. And every defeat carries within it the seeds of victory, while every victory carries within it the seeds of defeat.

Someone said that to me once -- I think Lee Atwater. He may be another reason the theme of this article is not victory.

Peggy Noonan is a writer whose memoir of the Reagan era is based on her time as a speech writer for Presidents Reagan and Bush.


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