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


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."

There were other "luxury issues" not mentioned by Grunwald that voters wouldn't or couldn't afford to buy that the Bush

campaign tried unsuccessfully to peddle -- "family values" and abortion, as best illustrated in Dan Quayle's jab at Murphy Brown and later the whole Hollywood "cultural elite." In better economic times -- through most of the Reagan years and Bush's first two -- these issues were or would have been golden, nurtured as they were by the Republican right wing.

Added to this mix was the combustible Ross Perot -- a match on dry tinder. He was in a real sense the embodiment of the American voter who was fed up with politics as usual and who felt he did not have the luxury of keeping his mouth shut any longer, or of paying attention to all the personal mud-slinging and diversions from the central issue. That issue, Perot said over and over again, was digging the country out of its economic mess, by taking national power from those who were abusing or squandering it, and giving it back to the people -- "the owners" of the country.

Talk show television

In Perot's undertaking, and in Clinton's ability to keep his own focus on the economy in the face of the assault on his character and trustworthiness, another new dimension in presidential politics played a key role. Talk show television to an unprecedented degree enabled the candidates, eventually including Bush as well, to tap directly into the voters' frustration over having lost an effective voice in the political decisions that affected their lives, and to give it an outlet.

After the election, Clinton talked about the impact of greater direct voter involvement in the process. In pressing for the town meeting format in which voters expressed their displeasure with politics as usual, he said, "I just had this instinctive feeling that this was an election that was terribly important to people and they wanted to lift it up, and sure enough that's what they did. There was a huge turnout, and I think all the stuff we did [to involve voters more directly], I hope we can keep it going."

Larry King, whose CNN call-in show became a regular stopping place on the campaign trail for all three candidates, naturally reveled in the phenomenon, but also underscored its significance to the process. "I think we've never had a year when we knew the candidates better than this year," King said after the election. "I don't think there could have been anybody saying, 'I don't know Bill Clinton' or 'I don't know George Bush' or 'I don't know Ross Perot' by the time they went to vote.

A 'human-interest saga'

"What showed me the success of it was the audience that the debates had. I think this became a human-interest saga in which these three people and the vice presidential candidates were more than just an election. They were a television series about to end, on Nov. 3. It was like the last night of "Cheers." These guys were going to go away . . . and the public had gotten so absorbed with them that by the time of the debates everyone was watching for something to happen . . . to see the energy."

Also, King noted, it is not so easy for a candidate to slough off a voter who calls in as it is to put aside or put down a celebrity interviewer. "When someone says [on the air], 'I'm out of work, what are you gonna do for me?' it gives a totally different perspective," King said, "than Larry King or Dan Rather saying, 'What about the people out of work?' You are now hearing a human being out of work talking to a man who can affect his getting work. You can't beat that."

Main Street, U.S.A.

All these voices, for the first time since the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War, were talking almost exclusively in 1992 about the condition of life on Main Street, U.S.A. They had been quiet long enough. They had turned their backs on the political process long enough. They demanded to be heard -- they demanded change, and on Nov. 3, 1992, they forced it.

Reprinted from "MAD AS HELL: Revolt at the Ballot Box, 1992." Copyright (c) 1993 by Politics Today, Inc. Published by Warner Books, Inc., New York. All rights reserved.

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