Like the election of 1960, the outgoing President was extremely popular and the Vice President hoped to capitalize on his large base for his own candidacy. This time, a not-so-charismatic New Englander stood in his way. Was the conservative coalition strong enough to survive this challenge?
The Last Four Years
The economic boom of Ronald Reagan’s first term continued into his second. The Gross National Product grew annually by at least 2.7% each year, reaching 4.5% in 1988. Unemployment fell to 5.2%. Inflation stabilized and interest rates remained low. The stock market reached new heights. The 1987 crash, in which the market dropped 500 points in a single day, proved to be a minor setback. As I discussed in my previous post, millions of Americans were raised out of poverty during the Reagan years, but the gap between the richest Americans and the middle class widened dramatically. In addition, the federal deficit continued to skyrocket. Reagan’s second term never saw a deficit below $149 billion. The national debt was $2.6 trillion when he left office, three times higher than the number he inherited in 1981. The deficit made the America more dependent on foreign investment and imports, leading to a massive trade imbalance. Reagan abandoned the fight for spending cuts from Congress. Instead, the centerpiece of his second-term economic policy was the Tax Reform Act of 1986. The administration hoped to supplement lower taxes with a broader tax base created by closing loopholes and eliminating some deductions. Reagan promoted the idea as bringing “fairness, growth, and simplicity” to the tax code. Many Republican businessmen complained about the eliminated loopholes, but the bill was widely supported by the public. It moved slowly through Congress, but was eventually signed into law in October, 1986. Unfortunately, the highest tax cuts went to the top bracket. Although many loopholes were indeed closed, they were quickly replaced with new ones.
Reagan faced a huge public health crisis in the form of the AIDS epidemic. The virus mostly affected drug users and gay men, and doctors had no cure. By 1985, 4,000 people had died from AIDS. Four years later, that number was 46,000. Public reaction was mostly defined by fear and ignorance. Misinformation spread easily and victims were often shunned. Many Americans simply saw it as an issue for a small minority group. At first, Reagan did not understand the magnitude of the crisis. His stance changed when he learned that his friend, fellow actor Rock Hudson, was suffering from the disease. Reagan spoke to Hudson privately on the phone to offer his condolences, but made no public statement. Hudson died less than two months later. It wasn’t until 1987 that Reagan publicly stated, “There’s no reason for those who carry the AIDS virus to wear a scarlet A.” Reagan eventually considered AIDS a “top priority” and ordered his Surgeon General to prepare a report focused on its prevention. The result was three recommended steps: abstinence, monogamy, and condoms. The administration struggled to communicate these suggestions to the public, mostly due to social conservatives’ objections to the endorsement of condoms. Simply put, Reagan did not act quick enough on the epidemic and was too slow to use the bully pulpit to correct misconceptions about the disease. That said, by the end of Reagan’s term, the government was spending $2.3 billion on AIDS research.
Reagan’s tough stance on Communism continued into his second term. In his 1985 State of the Union, he announced his support for anti-Communist forces around the world, particularly in the Middle East and Central America. His belief that it was America’s responsibility to combat the spread of Communism was referred to as the “Reagan Doctrine.” Reagan called insurgents, like the Contras opposing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, “freedom fighters.” In his first term, Reagan authorized secret aid to the Contras, allowing them to grow from a few hundred members, to thousands. Democrats in Congress did not approve of US involvement in Central America. They passed the Boland Amendments, which prohibited efforts by the Executive Branch to overthrow the Nicaraguan government, but imposed no penalties for its violation. What became known as the Iran-Contra scandal was comprised of two interlinked schemes. The first was the sale of US military equipment (primarily anti-tank missiles) to Iran, contradicting the Reagan Administration’s neutral position on the Iran-Iraq War. The second, was National Security Council members’ attempt to funnel proceeds from the arms sales to the Contras. News of the arms shipments to Iran broke in a Lebanese magazine in November, 1986, and quickly spread to the US. The Justice Department began an investigation, subsequently uncovering the connection to the Contras. Several NSC and administration officials were indicted in relation to the scandals, but the most important question was of Reagan’s involvement. Although he eventually admitted to authorizing the arms sales, no evidence was ever found to directly connect him to the diversion of funds to the Contras.
Despite the recent increase in tensions between the US and USSR, the 1985 Geneva Summit opened the door for new arms-control treaties. Although some might describe Reagan’s second term as a shift in strategy, supporters would point out that the goal of his military buildup was always to force the Soviets into negotiations. The Soviet Union saw several years of instability in leadership, eventually landing on Mikhail Gorbachev, who instituted a series of economic and political reforms. He hoped for an improved relationship with the US so that military spending could be shifted to the economy. Reagan and Gorbachev’s meeting in Geneva led to three more summits of varying degrees of success. The main points of conflict were America’s “Star Wars” initiative and Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan. A new treaty removed all intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe. In 1987, Gorbachev visited the US, which resulted in another treaty that called for the destruction of more than 2,600 nuclear weapons. The following year, Reagan visited the Soviet Union, a powerful symbol of how close the two superpowers had become. When a reporter asked him to comment on his previous description of the USSR as an “evil empire,” Reagan replied, “I was talking about another time, another era.” Just before the end of Reagan’s term, Gorbachev announced the unilateral reduction of military forces in Eastern Europe by 500,000 troops and 10,000 tanks over the next two years. The end of the Cold War was in sight.
Understandably, President Reagan was very popular! He had seemingly solved two huge issues that had plagued the US for years, Stagflation and the Cold War. Voters were mostly unaware of the negative effects of trickle-down economics, the deficit, and the Reagan Doctrine. That being said, Democrats did take back control of the Senate (and held the House) in the 1986 midterm elections. This was partly the result of the “six-year itch” phenomenon, in which the president’s party usually loses a significant number of seats in Congress after six years in power. Additionally, Republicans were defending an unusually high number of freshmen Congressmen, thanks to the 1980 Republican wave. This meant that Reagan’s successor in 1988 would need a new list of crises to scare the American public back to the Republican Party.
Afraid of another blowout election loss, Democrats were careful not to venture too far left. They hoped to win back the Reagan Democrats, moderates who had switched parties for the popular president. After an impressive keynote speech in the 1984 convention, some Democrats hoped to recruit New York Governor Mario Cuomo, but he declined. The remaining frontrunner was former Colorado Senator Gary Hart, who led a respectable effort in the 1984 primaries. He was seen as a moderate who could easily improve upon Walter Mondale’s performance. His support vanished, however, after an extramarital affair was revealed by the press. This left a wide field of candidates for voters to choose from, a group sometimes disparagingly referred to as the “seven dwarfs.” The contenders included reverend and activist Jesse Jackson (also on his second attempt), young Tennessee Senator Al Gore, former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt, Missouri Representative Richard Gephardt, Illinois Senator Paul Simon, Delaware Senator Joe Biden, and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. There was no clear frontrunner for most of the race. 1988 remains the year with the most individuals winning state primaries since the 1971 McGovern reforms. Senator Biden eventually dropped out due to allegations of plagiarism. Reverend Jackson initially had the delegate lead, but lost momentum after losing to Governor Dukakis in Wisconsin. Dukakis went on to win the nomination. Jackson’s supporters felt that his second-place finish earned him the running mate position. Instead, Dukakis chose Lloyd Bentsen, the senior senator from Texas. Many pointed out that, as politicians from Massachusetts and Texas, the Democrats had recreated the geographical alliance of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
As Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush was seen as his most obvious successor. Although his family’s reputation is often based on his time as an oil businessman in Texas, Bush was originally a New Englander. Arguably, he may have the most experience of any presidential candidate in history. He served as a representative, ambassador to the UN, chairman of the RNC, US envoy to China, director of the CIA, and, of course, vice president. Before he was selected as Reagan’s running mate, he actually ran against him as the moderate alternative in the 1980 primaries. In 1988, Bush had primary challenges from conservative Kansas Senator Bob Dole (Gerald Ford’s running mate in 1976), Baptist Minister (and religious media mogul) Pat Robertson, and New York Representative Jack Kemp. Bush’s campaign had a wake-up call when he finished third to Dole and Robertson in the Iowa Caucus. As a way to correct his somewhat wimpy image, Bush went on to lead an aggressive campaign. Bush won New Hampshire and dominated on Super Tuesday. From there, he easily won the nomination. For running mate, he selected Indiana Senator Dan Quayle. Although Quayle attracted conservatives, his youth (41 during the campaign) and lack of experience made him a controversial choice. His tendency to misspeak did not help his case. In his acceptance speech, Bush promised to continue Reagan’s conservative economic policies and standup to the Democratic Congress, declaring, “Read my lips: No new taxes.”
With the Cold War reaching its end, Dukakis proposed cutting military spending and using the money on social programs. Unfortunately, his policies were overshadowed by the aggressive tactics of the Bush campaign, which he was far too slow to respond to. Dukakis freely labeled himself as a “liberal,” a term that Republicans were able to turn into a dirty word representing out-of-touch coastal elite. Bush, aided by campaign manager Lee Atwater, used perceived extremes of the Left to scare moderates. His team exploited unexpected, and frankly unimportant, flaws in Dukakis’ record to attack him. For example, Dukakis had vetoed a Massachusetts bill that would have required schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, believing it to be unconstitutional. Bush used this act to label Dukakis as unpatriotic. He built on this accusation throughout the campaign. At a flag factory in New Jersey, he claimed flag sales had rebounded only after Reagan’s defeat of Jimmy Carter. Atwater even spread the false rumor that Dukakis’ wife had once burned an American flag to protest the Vietnam War. Similarly, Bush attacked Dukakis as being weak on defense. This claim was epitomized by a dorky, staged photo-op of Dukakis riding in a tank wearing an oversized helmet. The photo became perfect fodder for Republican attack ads.
Bush’s most serious accusation against Dukakis was that he was soft on crime. Specifically, they tied the Governor to a Massachusetts furlough program for prisoners. Under that program, a convicted murder named Willie Horton raped a Maryland woman and attacked her fiancé. Bush’s campaign used Horton as a dog whistle for fears about the black community. Atwater promised to make voters associate Dukakis so strongly with Horton, that they would think they were running mates. Bush went so far as to say Republicans “don’t let murderers out on vacation to terrorize innocent people… Dukakis owes the people an explanation of why he supported the outrageous program.” Horton was featured prominently in Republican television ads. The Republican Party chairman circulated a letter in Maryland containing a picture of Dukakis next to a picture of Horton reading, “Is this your pro-family team for 1988? You, your spouse, your children, and your friends can have the opportunity to receive a visit from someone like Willie Horton if Mike Dukakis becomes president.” Democrats pointed out that the Massachusetts furlough program had actually started under Dukakis’ Republican predecessor. In fact, forty-two states had similar programs, including California during Reagan’s tenure as governor. Bush himself had sponsored a chain of halfway houses for parolees, where a murder had occurred under similar circumstances. The Democratic response was too late to change voters’ image of their candidate. One of the most damaging moments Dukakis’ campaign came during the second debate. A moderator asked the Democrat if he would still support the death penalty if someone raped and murdered his wife. Dukakis gave a technical and emotionless response reiterating his opposition to the policy. Most viewers felt that the premise, and the question itself, should have elicited a bigger response.
In addition to the aggressive tactics of campaign manager Lee Atwater, Bush relied heavily on the input of media advisor Roger Ailes. Ailes had a new theory of campaigning. He believed the media was only interested in three things: gaffes, attacks, and good visuals. He explained, “That’s the one sure way of getting coverage. You try to avoid as many mistakes as you can. You try to give them as many pictures as you can. And if you need coverage, you attack, and you will get coverage.” His strategy was based on his Orchestra Pit Theory: “If you have two guys on stage, and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?” He said it was a mistake for a candidate to be too detailed in his vision for America because it would give his opponent an opportunity to tell the media why he’s wrong. One reporter prompted him, “So you’re saying the notion of the candidate saying, ‘I want to run for president because I want to do something for this country,’ is crazy.” Ailes replied, “Suicide.”
Although it had little effect on the outcome of the election, one of the most memorable moments of the campaign came from the vice-presidential debate. In response to questions of his youth, Dan Quayle replied, “It’s not just age, it’s accomplishments, it’s experience. I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president in this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency.” Quayle’s predictable response set Lloyd Bentsen up for an easy hit. Bentsen interjected, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” The crowd cheered and Quayle was stunned. All he could do was mutter, “That was really uncalled for, Senator.”
Democrats didn’t fare much better with Dukakis. Bush dominated in nearly all regions of the country. It was the lowest election turnout since 1924. To date, this was the last time a Republican won the states of California, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Connecticut, Maine, Delaware, or Vermont. In West Virginia, one faithless elector cast her vote for Bentsen as president and Dukakis and vice president as a protest against the electoral college.
George H.W. Bush became the 41st president! He was the first sitting vice president to win an election of his own since Martin Van Buren in 1836! The electoral score was 426-111. Bush won 53.4% of the popular vote; Dukakis won 45.6%. No candidate since has performed better in either electors or popular vote.
What Did It Say About America?
Reagan’s popularity successfully rubbed off on Bush. Though he didn’t command quite the same lead (and saw low voter turnout), voters wanted a continuation of Republicans’ economic and foreign policy. That being said, many Americans felt that presidential politics had become trivial. The main issues of the campaign were cultural and not necessarily the most important. Bush, scared of being portrayed as a wimp, degraded politics forever by playing dirty. And it worked.
Was It The Right Decision?
Again, no. But, as Dukakis’ tank picture showed, the most memorable campaign gaffes reflect what voters already think about a candidate. Like Walter Mondale four years earlier, Michael Dukakis was a weak and uninspiring candidate. He had no defense for the negative labels thrown at him. Bush went on to break his no taxes pledge in 1990 in an effort to hold down the deficit, a decision he would pay a price for. He would continue to follow in Martin Van Buren’s footsteps for one more election.