Election ‘92: 25 years on, the Democrats have to learn history can repeat itself

The passing of George H W Bush brings the one term Presidency into light.

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The remaining four living presidents and the late George H W Bush (far left)

The death of George H. W. Bush this weekend gained little traction in the UK, apart from a BBC breaking news alert.

Understandably then, Bush’s passing didn’t stick in our national news coverage for too long. The UK is, after all, a week away from potentially ushering in a constitutional crisis if the Government loses a vote by up to 200 rebels . On top of that, today the Head of MI6 will talk of the risk Russia poses to our security, as well as that of Islamic State. And if all that crisis wasn’t enough, the world is now at a ‘cross-roads’ regarding climate change, and we are ‘nowhere near where we need to be’.

International (and national) crisis currently feel both overwhelming and underwhelming in equal measure. Sure, we face major, systemic security challenges every day, but there are also millions in poverty, without education, unable to vote, falsely imprisoned, killed for their beliefs and orientation. I — thank goodness — manage to live my life unscathed and protected where necessary.

But overwhelming too. How can we trust the very people we share our work space with, share public transport with, socialise with, play sports with, eat and drink with, discuss politics with. Fortunately for most of us, we never have to make decisions that fundamentally shape the security threat we face.

The job of leading a nation is — rightly or wrongly — open to a elite few, and on their judgement, often, lives depend. Whether to push a nuclear button, to authorise a drone strike, to withdraw from an international consensus Agreement on climate change etc etc. It also highlights, of course, the consistency and omniscience of these challenges and threats. From Washington’s days, the 45 occupants of the White House handle almost unimaginable pressure. Yet, considering the consistency of pressure presidents face, the personalities and campaigns of those who occupy the White House or who have aspirations to do so, are significantly varied.

Despite George Bush’s passing only briefly hitting the UK’s news, it, quite naturally, made me look back at his premiership. In doing so, it becomes all the more admirable how he tactfully ushered in a new international era; the West won the Cold War under Bush, and while no one would claim he single-handily secured this victory, the man was head of the CIA, Vice President, and then President during a time of intense international danger. The transition of the Cold War would not have happened without good leadership.

He was not, however, a campaigner, something that was demonstrated when he delayed the launch of his re-election campaign (a tactic that can actually benefit an incumbent as they let the pack run rabid for a while, before appearing to take the reins back. But I very much doubt Bush had that level of campaign nuance and instead just wanted to delay something he didn’t enjoy). Nor was he a great orator, unable to invigorate and emotionally influence crowds in the way Bill Clinton did, masterfully. Imagine Bush playing the saxophone in black sunglasses or expertly handling the question from Marissa Hall Summers in the debate:

“How can you honestly find a cure to the economic problems of the common people, if you have no experience in what’s ailing them?”

Bush froze at this question.

He instead enjoyed the act of governing, being the Chief Executive of the nation; calm, loyal, tactful, a sober representative at the head of the executive branch.

Compare that to the current picture. Whatever one makes of Trump’s politics, he brings alive crowds and energises his base like few others can. In his own words, he could probably step into 5th Avenue and shoot someone and he still wouldn’t lose votes. Claims in Bob Woodward’s book, Fear, that Trump is happier digesting a fillet-o-fish than a comprehensive briefing from senior advisers seem to bounce off him nowadays, barely lasting one news cycle.

There are, then, significant and profound differences in the very essence of their respective presidencies and personalities; the way they conduct themselves personally, their view of America’s role internationally, and their preferences politically. On a international level, we continue to be exposed to genuine systematic threats, just like we did in the 20th century, but with two very different leadership approaches. It is testament to the robustness of democracy that we carry on.

“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”

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Donald Trump’s unwavering base

Examining the men’s early life before politics is interesting too. Because on the face of it, they are very similar. If I told you to imagine a man who was born into wealth, made a fortunate in private industry, became synonymous with a single state, and then stepped into the White House representing the GOP, the answer could conceivably be Bush or Trump. Perhaps the biggest difference in their days before the White House (ignoring Bush’s aversion to steak companies) is that one fought for his county the other dodged a draft…

This is however, not an attempt to draw a coherent comparison between the two men.

If, though, the Democrats are serious about making Trump a one-term President, like Bush Snr, then it’s valuable for them to look at the last time that happened. 1992, George H. W. Bush.

Studying the 1992 election offers some interesting points of reference and comparison in the context of 2020. The Democrats won, for a start. And it was no gimme. A late start and multiple scandals later (a taste of things to come…), Bill Clinton took himself from near political death to ‘fight like hell’ and win the White House off the GOP for the fist time since Carter, and stopped a one-term president for the first time since Hoover! (Baring death or resignation).

While it is perfectly possible that the Democrats will find a candidate who has the same electoral impact as Bill Clinton did in 1992, for me, it is not what 2020 could be marked most significantly by. The Democrats need to look to the Perot-factor. An independent challenger who can (for want of a more appropriate phrase), steal votes from the opposition. Part of Perot’s impact — part of, not all — stemmed from his lack of party alliance, he was freer to move how he wanted, both literally and in terms of policy shifts, because his candidacy was inherently reactionary, but also supplemented by a high level of credibility owing to his years in the private sector.

Withdrawing in July, only to return less than a month before election day, he kept the candidates on their toes, and voters interested. He was a menace for Bush, and at times, Clinton. He led in national polls — reaching nearly 40%, before qualifying for the ballot of all 50 states and taking 1 in 5 voters at the final whistle.

This time, however, the Democrats won’t be as lucky. They may stumble upon a strong candidate, they may chip away at Trump’s base, they may use international and domestic challenge to call for a change in leadership — as all candidates do, but it is unlikely they will not benefit from an independent like Perot in the same way Clinton did.

In the build up to 2020, it is much more realistic that the GOP, and any close affiliate that is thinking about running as an independent, will know that they cannot out-Trump, Trump. They cannot out-message someone who doesn’t speak clearly and they cannot out-organise someone who is chaotic.

The Democrats on the other hand, like the GOP in 1992, are vulnerable to an independent attack due to them lacking an obvious direction. I have previously written about Democrats’ rainbow coalition not being the silver bullet they envisage. Sooner or later they are going to have to make a decision about what type of candidate they feel can beat Trump, and who that person will be. Make no mistake, they have to exceptional.

On reflection, George Bush Snr should serve as an example of how to conduct oneself while in the White House. He was a statesman and a respected president who was in office during some of the most formative events of the 20th century. He was a single-term President, too, and to that end, the Democrats have to look closely if they want to repeat the feat. Perhaps it was in fact Bush’s calm nature, his disdain for campaigning, that gave Perot the impetus to run as an independent, we will never know. What we do know, is that while times are different, history can repeat itself. Trump is a bear pit that few will want to jump into. The Democrats, however, simply have to, otherwise they may find someone waiting to snatch it away from them…

Enter stage left: Bernie Sanders.

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Bernie Sanders, the Independent Senator for Vermont

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Writing on US politics from across the pond. Occasional comments in the build up to the 2020 election week. Views rarely my own. Especially the funny ones.

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