Looking To Run Against Barack Hussein Walker Bush

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Observing the disarray that is the party's field of presidential candidates, Republicans have attempted to console themselves by comparing Romney, Perry, and company to the Democratic field of 1992 that ended up in a surprising victory for Arkansas Governor William Jefferson Clinton. Just like the Democratic Party  in 1992, the Republican field is devoid of a frontrunner. Just like Democratic primary voters in 1992, Republicans are reluctant to commit. However, for Republicans, the silver lining is that the field of second-tier Democratic forgettables in 1992 produced the two-term Clinton Administration.  Surely the still fluid Republican race can similarly serve up a nominee capable of unseating incumbent President Barack Obama...

Revisiting 1992

By 1992, after three consecutive losses (by substantial margins), becoming the Democratic Party presidential nominee had seemingly become an exhibition of political masochism.  

In 1980, President James Carter became the first incumbent voted out of office since Herbert Hoover in 1932.  In 1984, so many traditional Democratic voters forsook Walter Mondale that history now remembers them as “Reagan Democrats.”  In 1988, Michael Dukakis blew a seventeen-point lead.  Two years into the Bush 41 presidency, few respected Democratic powerhouses would signal their interest.  

By December 1990, the race was so wide open even George McGovern, the loser of forty-nine states to one in 1972, admitted he was seriously thinking about running.  The first serious Democratic candidate -- former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, a self-described “pro-business liberal,” hadn’t been in office since 1985 after serving only one term -- announced in April 1991.

By the end of the year, a field of contenders eventually emerged consisting of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, Nebraska Senator Robert Kerrey, former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder, Tsongas, Jerry Brown, and Clinton.  Brown was the mercurial former California “Governor Moonbeam,” who last ran for president in 1980 and had left office in 1982.

Clinton was considered a riser given his youth, charisma, thoughtfulness on policy, and work to update Democratic liberalism after the 1984 debacle through the Democratic Leadership Council.  Unfortunately, his overly long nominating speech at the 1988 convention diminished enthusiasm for him.

Harkin’s bid led candidates to skip the Iowa caucuses and instead focus attention on the New Hampshire primary, where Clinton was leading Tsongas until his campaign faced explosive allegations of infidelity and draft dodging. Party establishment figures were so despondent the primary would be inconclusive that they considered drafting Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen as late as February 16 -- just two days before the vote.

Clinton came in second but characterized the unexpected second-place finish as a victory and christened himself the Comeback Kid.  Tsongas and Brown stayed in a little longer, until Clinton swept the Super Tuesday states, predominantly held in his native South.  Nonetheless, Clinton limped across the finish line, arriving at the Democratic Convention and polling third behind Bush and independent H. Ross Perot.

The Democratic Convention ended up being a turning point as the event successfully reintroduced Clinton to the country and coincided with Perot’s withdrawal from the race.  Clinton eventually won in November -- but he received only a plurality of the popular vote.  

Why so few first-tier names declined to make the race is no mystery.  Bush 41 proved a historic commander-in-chief, leading a global coalition against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and securing a decisive military victory in the Persian Gulf War.  Amidst a sluggish economy, Bush was rewarded with stratospherically high approval ratings -- 91 percent.  Most Democratic luminaries opposed the Bush Administration and those who didn’t concluded Bush would be unbeatable.  

Only after Bush’s poll numbers fell into the forties did Clinton and others join the race -- a convenience Tsongas derided as “a courage gap of fifty percent.”

Fast Forward to 2012

Today’s Republican hopefuls don’t lack for courage, but they are certainly desperate for affection.  “Weak frontrunner” has been permanently affixed to Mitt Romney’s name as he has been completely unable to break 20 percent in polling.  Meanwhile, Republican voters have cycling through Romney alternatives at a frenetic pace.  

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty never gained traction and dropped out after placing behind tea party favorite Rep. Michele Bachmann at the Ames Iowa straw poll.  Then major party donors persuaded Texas Gov. Rick Perry to enter the race.  Perry quickly supplanted Bachmann only to decline just as rapidly after successive stumbles on nationally televised debates.  Major party donors mobilized again, this time trying to recruit New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who eventually declined.  Businessman Herman Cain gained ground at Perry’s expense by promoting a radical plan to overhaul the tax system, but has now withered in the face of sexual harassment claims (and easy questions on foreign policy).  

In his wake, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, once dismissed as finished, has begun surging.  Current polling (11/17/11) has Gingrich tied with Romney for the lead, but his former employers (the health care industry, Freddie Mac) will definitely come back to haunt him.

Clinton's resilience eclipsed his (many) flaws and inevitably won over his party and the public -- maybe Romney's discipline (or Gingrich’s persistence) will achieve the same.

Perils of the Past as Prologue

However, the comparison only works if Obama runs as inept a re-election campaign as then President George H.W. Bush, which is a remote likelihood. Obama has already raised $88 million and observers are predicting he's prepared to drop "hope and change" in favor of "fear and loathing."

Then again, if one parallel is not enough, then perhaps a second similarity makes the case more persuasive. Unlike Bush 41, Obama has not had to deal with a primary challenge, but like Bush 41, he is approaching his level of success as a commander-in-chief.  

Since spring of this year, Obama has amassed an impressive collection of international rogues’ scalps.  Obama took out Osama bin Laden in May -- and can be commended for choosing the riskiest option, a covert raid, when he decided to do so.  The administration’s unrestricted drone warfare policy lucked out with a strike on a convoy in Yemen that included Anwar al-Awlaki.  Obama and allies just knocked off Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.  Obama hasn’t benefited approval rating-wise, but these successes could mitigate attacks on his foreign policy, a perennial Democratic Achilles’ Heel.

With the presidential part of the 1992 analogy falling into place, the Republican contenders may indeed have history on their side.  

...Of course, fortune smiled only on Clinton, not the Democratic Party that reluctantly embraced him.  Only two years after he won, Democrats lost the Senate and its forty-year old House majority and stayed in the congressional minority for the next twelve years...

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