How economic distress undercut Bush's strategy and led to Clinton's victory This time, scare issues failed to hit home

July 19, 1993

Sun political columnists Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover have written their fourth book on a presidential campaign. This is the third of three excerpts from "Mad As Hell: Revolt at the Ballot Box, 1992," which was released last week. Today's installment is on how the American voter spoke up during the campaign. In the Saturday and Sunday Sun, the authors wrote on the crucial second presidential debate and Bill Clinton's decision on what to do about the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

Why, after more than three decades of steadily increasing apathy and hostility toward the electoral process, did Americans, in electing Bill Clinton and denying George Bush a second term, post the largest percentage turnout since the election of John F. Kennedy?

If it was true that American voters were already "mad as hell" for several election cycles, what was it about 1992 that made so many of them decide that they were "not going to take it anymore," to the point of involving themselves in a political process they had shunned in those earlier election cycles?

For one thing, the world had changed in a dramatic fashion since the presidential election of 1988. The Cold War had ended, lifting the international climate of superpower confrontation and easing the threat of nuclear war in a truly significant way for the first time since the end of World War II. Americans were able to focus more of their attention on conditions at home and what their government in Washington was or wasn't doing to improve those conditions.

Economic decline

What they saw was economic decline that hit them not simply at the bottom rungs, with the poor and undereducated bearing the brunt as so often in past recessions. This time the blow was to the nation's solar plexus -- the immense middle class that was the legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, more recently wooed and won by Ronald Reagan -- and in a more frightening manner.

Part of the problem was that the whole concept of restructuring of industries that came with the end of the Cold War threatened middle-aged workers with the prospect that the job they were doing would not be there much longer, or that if they were laid off, the job wouldn't be there when there was rehiring. Longer life expectancy confronted these middle-aged workers with greater need for health care insurance and no way to get it through continued employment, and no way to pay the high premiums on their own. And with this apprehension and fear came frustration at a stand-pat president and, in due course, anger.

Bush team's 'disunity'

Jim Lake, Bush's communications director, said afterward that Bush thought the whole matter of convincing voters that he understood and cared about how people were hurting economically "was election year rhetoric, so he couldn't make the sale. . . . It never was part of him. He never got it." Bob Teeter, Bush's campaign chairman, said Bush "did get it," but there was too much "disunity" among his economic team to decide on a clear and coherent path to follow.

In attempting to finesse the economy as the central cause of voter apprehension, frustration, fear and anger by diverting attention to the question of Clinton's character and trustworthiness, the Bush campaign badly miscalculated. The sorts of scare issues that had worked for Bush against Michael S. Dukakis in 1988, in much better economic times, did not have the same effect against Clinton among voters more concerned about jobs than about such things as pollution in Boston Harbor or some new Willie Horton -- or Gennifer Flowers.

'Luxury issues'

Mandy Grunwald put it this way: "There was something unusual about this year that made it possible not to have Gennifer Flowers kill Clinton's candidacy, not to have the draft kill Clinton's candidacy. And that was just how scared people were about the fate of the country. People were engaged in the election in a completely different way than they were in '88 or '84, because the issues were so big and so prescient. It's an odd way to think about it, but there are a lot of issues that I consider 'luxury issues.' I think Boston Harbor and Willie Horton are 'luxury issues.' I think Gennifer Flowers is a 'luxury issue.'

"I mean 'luxury' in the sense that if you can put food on your table and pay your health care bills, and you cannot be worried about whether you have a job, then you have the luxury to think about whether or not Michael Dukakis furloughed some guy and you can think about whether this guy [Clinton] dodged the draft 23 years ago. What was so unusual about this year was that people didn't have that luxury. And they had a very clear sense of how big the problems were, and they were really single-minded about keeping focus on those problems, because mattered deeply to their lives what the state of the election was. I think that fundamental fact influenced everything, from the viewership of debates . . . to the dismissing of issues like the draft or his [Clinton's] trip to Moscow or any of that."

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