(Third in a series.)
As shown in the earlier articles of this series, a mystery candidate might run on his persona, his oratory and even on his wardrobe – often assisted by an interesting diversion – while hiding his intended policies and governing style from the voters. All Democrats who have won the presidency since 1960 have done so as mystery candidates.
John Kennedy ran on his Irish charm, but said little about how he would govern except, “We can do bettah.” His campaigns against racial segregation and organized crime were surprises that no one saw coming. His presidency and his death launched a decade of turmoil.
Jimmy Carter presented himself as the nation’s antidote, after the unsavory Nixon presidency and the bitter divisiveness of the Vietnam War. His genteel Southern manner and “born again” faith diverted Democrat-leaning reporters away from his record. Mr. Carter’s presidency crashed under the weight of foreign policy crises which he couldn’t handle.
The wreck of the Carter regime ushered in the Reagan era. It was the greatest presidential upset in American history, to that time. Having trashed Ronald Reagan as “a dumb grade-B actor” and “a dangerous cowboy,” most Democrats never saw the approaching tsunami. At a garden party, hosted in mid-September 1980 by a teaching-colleague of my wife, we found ourselves chatting with several Democrats from Georgia: a Peace Corps couple back from Cambodia; two black school-teachers; and a Washington Post columnist. All agreed that the election might be close, but that “ole Jimmy” would pull it out.
My own view was formed from a year of business-travel to San Diego, New Mexico and Nebraska. In each place, local newspapers exuded a political temper much different from that expressed at our polite garden party. Going where angels might fear to tread, I told my fellow guests that Mr. Reagan was not only going to win, but he was going to win BIG.
To their credit, the other guests treated me politely – as one might do with someone of diminished mental capacity. Someone mentioned the Redskins, and another commented on the delicious Vietnamese fare being served. (It was one of the best meals I have ever eaten.) Nothing more was said about the upcoming election.
After the Reagan landslide, I wondered if those guests recalled my prediction. Mr. Reagan won 489 electoral votes of 44 states, while Mr. Carter won 49 electoral votes from six states. The Reagan coat-tails also carried Republicans to their first Senate-majority since 1955. Democrats retained control of the House, although they lost 35 seats to the Reagan tide. This change in the political winds enabled Mr. Reagan to get a package of tax cuts passed which blasted the economy off dead center and launched the boom of the 1980s.
A week after taking office, Mr. Reagan decontrolled gasoline. Critics had predicted that this would make gas-prices soar, so the country held its breath. As it happened, I bought gas on the very day when deregulation took effect. Sure enough, gas that was $1.20-a-gallon the day before was now going for $1.37. It looked like the critics were right. But then, as the scare wore off, prices drifted down below $1 a gallon. Deregulation permanently ended gas lines and shortages.
In 1983 Mr. Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) – a land- and space-based missile-defense system derisively called “Star Wars” by political critics who claimed it wasn’t possible to hit an ICBM in flight. Later tests proved them wrong, however, and development of the system proceeded. Kremlin insiders reported that the USSR’s leaders knew we could build the system, and that they could never compete with our success. Thus, their top diplomatic priority became persuading us to abandon SDI.
At their October 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, President Reagan and USSR Leader Mikhail Gorbachev discussed arms reductions and other strategic issues. The Russkies’ wanted us to stop developing SDI, as a condition for mutual elimination of all ICBMs by both countries. But Mr. Reagan walked away from the table because he refused to abandon SDI. Many historians mark this as the point when the collapse of the USSR began.
Mr. Reagan encountered rough seas in his second term, when reports emerged that senior administration officials had secretly facilitated the sale of arms to Iran’s Khomeni-government, which had been under a USA arms-embargo. Lt. Colonel Oliver North, of the National Security Council, was implicated in a plan to divert proceeds of the arms sale to fund the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua. Funding of the Contras by our government had been prohibited by Congress via the Boland Amendment. In March 1987, Mr. Reagan made a nationally televised address in which he took full responsibility for the affair.
Despite the media-uproar over these events, Mr. Reagan signed legislation which established just two income-tiers for the income-tax: the lower tier taxed at 15%, and the upper tier taxed at 28%. The legislation’s boost to the economy carried Vice-president George H. W. Bush into the presidency for a “Reagan third term.”
Mr. Bush was a good man and a dedicated public servant who:
- Served as a Congressman from Texas in the 1960s;
- Was appointed by President Nixon as Ambassador to the United Nations in 1971;
- Was appointed by President Ford as Chief of the Liaison Office to the People’s Republic of China in 1974;
- Was appointed by Mr. Ford to head the CIA in 1976;
- Became Mr. Reagan’s running mate and served two terms as his vice-president.
Although he knew he was elected in 1988 to carry on Mr. Reagan’s program, President Bush wanted to put his own mark on the presidency. This led him to advocate a “kinder and gentler” politics, which he hoped would help him reach “across the aisle.” During his 1988 campaign he also famously declaimed: “Read my lips: No new taxes!”
All this was good political theater, but the lip-reading vow came back to bite Mr. Bush later. In 1990 he agreed to a tax-hike in exchange for some budget-cuts. The tax-hike went through, but the promised cuts never materialized. (So much for “reaching across the aisle.”) Conservatives never forgave him for letting the Democrats’ roll him with their customary bait-and-switch.
The tax-problem was temporarily tabled in August 1990, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded oil-rich Kuwait. Vowing that Iraq’s action would not stand, Mr. Bush ordered Operation Desert Shield to mobilize our forces and build an international alliance. Operation Desert Storm kicked off in mid-January 1991. Our armored forces outflanked and expelled all Iraqi troops from Kuwait in a matter of days.
Following his triumph in Kuwait, Mr. Bush looked so formidable that few Democrats wanted to oppose him in 1992. The exception was a good looking, but little-known governor of Arkansas named Bill Clinton, who brought an outspoken wife named Hillary and a carload of salacious rumors about his penchant for a well-turned ankle into the political arena.
Billy-boy – a.k.a. “Bubba” – seemed to have little chance against George H. W’s warrior-image. Not only had Mr. Bush thrashed Saddam Hussein’s troops, but he was our last soldier-president from World War II. Mr. Bush served as a young bomber pilot in the Pacific; got shot down on a bombing-mission in 1944; and was rescued by a submarine crew after a month at sea. After Desert Storm, he looked unbeatable for re-election.
But Mr. Bush was not elected for his combat-chops. Voters expected him to carry on Mr. Reagan’s program of low taxes, limited government, and a thriving economy. These became renewed issues when a mild recession followed the Kuwait War. This allowed Mr. Clinton and his campaign team to run around the country claiming that we had “the worst economy since the Great Depression.” Considering the charge absurd, Mr. Bush ignored it. But legions of voters under age 30 – who wouldn’t have known the Great Depression from the Great Gatsby – bought the line and decided it was time for a change.
Mr. Clinton probably couldn’t have ridden the “worst economy” shtick to a win on his own, but he got help from Ross Perot – a quirky Texas billionaire who billed himself as the guy who would execute the economic measures Mr. Bush had failed to deliver. In a remarkably short time Mr. Perot mounted a nation-wide third-party campaign and got his name on the ballots of most states. Many political analysts (including this one) have suspected that Mr. Perot’s sudden emergence as a full-blown candidate was orchestrated by the Clintons, who recognized that they needed an “ace” to tip the electoral game-board their way.
Mr. Perot’s entry furnished interesting copy for reporters, who lavished much attention on the eccentric tycoon. That media exposure conveniently diverted attention away from the “bimbo eruptions” of ladies eager to publicize their past adventures with Arkansas’s playboy-guv. Reporters were inclined to give Bubba a pass anyway, because, you know, “boys will be boys.”
Mr. Perot said some smart things about taxes and the economy, but he was essentially a second mystery candidate who said what conservative voters wanted to hear, and asked them to trust him. He and Playboy Bill delivered an electoral one-two punch that Mr. Bush could not counter.
After a contentious campaign, during which Mr. Clinton hammered the “worst economy” theme, while Mr. Perot toured the country denouncing the president’s ineffectiveness, Mr. Bush went down to defeat. Bill Clinton won 370 electoral votes of 32 states, plus DC, and 43% of the popular vote. Mr. Bush won 168 electoral votes of 18 states and 37.4% of the popular vote. Ross Perot carried no states, but drew off 18.9% of the popular vote – almost certainly preventing Mr. Bush from carrying states that might have given him the election.
After Mr. Clinton’s inauguration, media reports announced: “Surprise! The economy isn’t as bad as we said it was…” With solid Democrat majorities in both houses of Congress, Mr. Clinton pushed a major tax-hike through and signed it into law. It was, said one commentator, “just Mr. Clinton’s friendly, Arkansas way of sayin’ howdy.”
Later, when he was running for a second term, Mr. Clinton admitted that he had raised taxes “too much.” But that left-handed apology was just another example of “triangulation,” which let him appear both for and against a contentious issue. The style characterized his presidency.
The Clintons immediately fired the White House travel staff so they could place their own people in those positions. This was controversial, as such non-political staff are usually left in place from one administration to the next. To legitimize the firings, the Clintons had the FBI charge Travel Office Director Billy Dale with embezzlement. He was later cleared of that charge, but he was still out of a job. It was a precursor of Clintonian governance.
The unexplained death of Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster, in July 1993, was an early Clinton-administration scandal. Mr. Foster was found shot to death in his car, in Fort Marcy Park of Fairfax, Virginia. His death was ruled a suicide, but some aspects of the case have made it a continuing subject of conspiracy theories.
Almost everything Mr. Clinton did in his first term was a surprise, since he had revealed so little during his mystery-candidate campaign. Part of that surprise was the emergence of his advisor, Vernon Jordan, as well as his far-left wife, Hillary, as influential figures in the administration.
After two years of Mr. Clinton’s surprises, shell-shocked voters decided that a change was needed in Washington. Consequently, in one of the greatest political upheavals in American history, Republicans gained 54 seats in the House of Representatives, to obtain a majority for the first time since 1952. Republicans also won a Senate-majority by gaining 8 seats.
Under Speaker Newt Gingrich’s leadership, Republicans passed a budget which cut federal spending, as prescribed in Mr. Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” But President Clinton vetoed it because it cut funding for education, the environment and public health. Republicans lacked the votes to override Mr. Clinton’s veto, so two government-shutdowns resulted: November 14-19, 1995: and December 16, 1995, to January 6, 1996. The holiday-timing of these shutdowns, plus strident media-coverage condemning the GOP’s “heartless budget,” strengthened Mr. Clinton’s hand and eventually forced Republicans to pass a budget that the president would sign.
The budget-standoff was widely hailed as a “win” for Mr. Clinton, but his inner circle knew that his position for re-election was shaky. This led him to collaborate with Republicans, in mid-1996, on a bill that enacted significant welfare-reforms. Many analysts credit the passage of that legislation as a major factor in Mr. Clinton’s re-election.
Once again Ross Perot unexpectedly jumped into the ring to pummel Senator Bob Dole – the GOP’s 73-year-old candidate. As before, Mr. Perot won no states, but drew off 8.4% of the popular vote. Mr. Clinton won 379 electoral votes of 31 states and 49.2% of the popular vote. Mr. Dole won 159 electoral votes of 19 states and 40.7% of the popular vote. The motivation for Mr. Perot’s third-party runs in both elections remains unknown. Pols are still speculating on whether the Clintons somehow got him to do it.
In 1998, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Special Prosecutor investigation, the impeachment, and the Senate’s acquittal were subjects of much media attention, discussion and misinformation. Political commentators still say Mr. Clinton’s impeachment was “all about sex,” although the two articles which the House passed cited actual crimes that Mr. Clinton had committed while governor of Arkansas.
Special Counsel Ken Starr showed that Mr. Clinton had tampered with a witness and committed perjury in a harassment suit brought by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones. The facts were indisputable. Mr. Clinton skated because the 45 senators of his party held firm and voted to acquit – thus preventing the required 2/3 majority needed for conviction. Five Republicans voted to acquit on the tampering-article, and ten Republicans voted to acquit on the perjury-article.
Subsequently, Mr. Clinton was too wounded to credibly pass the torch to his vice-president, Al Gore. The 2000 election was very close, producing a contested result in Florida, where George W. Bush led by 535 votes. The Gore team called for recounts in four selected Florida counties where they believed they could surmount Mr. Bush’s lead. But noisy “white collar” demonstrations at the recount-office in Miami stopped the Miami-Dade recount.
Finally, in mid-December, the U. S. Supreme Court ordered a halt to all “selected” recounts. Mr. Bush was declared the winner in Florida, and thus the winner of the presidency. Mr. Bush won 271 electoral votes of 30 states and 47.9% of the popular vote. Mr. Gore won 266 electoral votes of 20 states and 48.4% of the popular vote.
The 2000 election launched a new era of post-election contention whenever a Republican wins the presidency.