Posted on February 24, 1992 in Washington Watch
As the dust settles from the explosive New Hampshire primary elections, both the Democratic and Republican parties and their leaders have been forced to take a fresh look at their political campaign strategies.
In this first round of the 1992 elections President Bush beat his conservative challenger, T.V. personality Pat Buchanan, by a margin of 53% to 37%. The surprisingly large Buchanan vote was a clear protest aimed at the White House. New Hampshire’s weakening economic situation (its unemployment rate has more than doubled since 1988), gave Buchanan a perfect platform from which to launch his angry attack on Bush’s performance as President.
By the time the election results were in, the White House made it clear it got the message. The President’s failure to respond earlier to the recession had made him appear to be out of touch and uncaring. Similarly, his failure to respond to weeks of Buchanan’s blistering attack allowed resentment against Bush to build.
The President and his Republican advisors now realize they must take this campaign seriously. While there is no doubt that Bush will win the Republican nomination to run for reelection (and while no one seriously believes that Buchanan can defeat him), it is now clear that the President must run a real campaign to win big. If he doesn’t, he may be so bloodied and wounded at the end of the primaries that the Democrats will have a real opportunity to win in November.
As it is, after nine weeks of being “pounded” in New Hampshire by Buchanan and five Democrats, Bush’s most recent approval rating is down to an all time low of 39% against a disapproval rating of 48%. And for the first time the polls are showing a Democrat beating the President by a margin of 48% to 44%.
The White House’s new strategy, announced this week, has Bush campaigning non-stop until the March 10th primaries. He will “appear presidential”, propose new sweeping economic reforms and attack the Democratic Congress for failing to work with his economic proposals and, when necessary, attack Buchanan’s isolationism (specifically his failure to support the Gulf War) and his protectionist trade politics.
It is hoped that such an aggressive campaign will win all 15 primaries between now and March 10th, reestablish the President’s standing in the polls and give his campaign much needed momentum.
Buchanan’s campaign must also now face some hard questions. His 37% has shown the President to be vulnerable, but Buchanan and his advisors know he cannot win the Republican nomination. While they are trying to force the President back to a more conservative political orientation, what they may actually be doing is giving Democrats a hand in defeating an incumbent Republican President.
Even Buchanan’s supporters are sometimes shocked by the vehemence of his attack on the President, referring to him as “King George” or even by mimicking one of the Democrats and mockingly calling the President “George Herbert Walker Bush”—in effect poking fun at his “aristocratic roots”.
Some have compared Buchanan to Eugene McCarthy, whose 1968 anti-Vietnam protest campaign so weakened President Lyndon Johnson that Johnson dropped out of the race. Since no one expects Bush to withdraw, however, the more fitting parallel may be with the Kennedy challenge to President Carter in 1980. In that drawn out battle Carter emerged victorious, but so bloodied that he became an easy target for Reagan in the November election.
Buchanan, who appears to have Presidential ambitions also in 1996, must now ask himself “how far is too far?” Does he want to be responsible for making Bush’s reelection more difficult? And will the Republican faithful support him if, in fact, he contributes to Bush’s undoing?
Democrats, too, have their questions to answer.
The two Democrats who emerged as winners in New Hampshire, former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas who garnered 32% and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton who won 25% of the votes, sent an important message to the Democratic party—especially to the Democrats in Congress.
The Tsongas and Clinton message of fiscal conservatism and pro-business economic growth is a more conservative view than that of the Congressional Democratic leadership—and far more conservative than the position of the other major presidential candidates (all of whom combined to receive less than 30%).
The similarities between some of Tsongas’ economic programs and those of President Bush present Congressional Democrats with a bit of a dilemma. This irony was seized upon by Republican Senator Bob Dole who both issued Tsongas an invitation to join the Republican Party and chided Democrats for blocking passage of the very Bush proposals supported by the New Hampshire Democratic winner.
The three other Democratic candidates will now step up their attacks on Tsongas and Clinton, focusing on their economic conservatism (Tsongas’ support for a reduction in the capital gains tax, his opposition to a middle-class tax cut and his support for nuclear power) as well as their conservatism on some social issues (Clinton, for example, supports the death penalty)
If this internal rupturing is not enough to worry Democrats, another weakness came into sharp focus in the days following New Hampshire. All of the losers sought to dismiss Tsongas’ New Hampshire win as a result of the fact that he comes from neighboring Massachusetts. They are portraying him as only a regional candidate who has no national appeal. Nevertheless, each of Tsongas’ opponents proceeded to focus on their regionalism as they sought a win of their own in the next round.
Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey immediately shifted their campaigns to South Dakota (which borders both states) for that state’s February 25th caucuses. Harkin, on arrival, declared, “it’s good to be home” and Kerrey emphasized his status as a “neighbor”. Clinton, who is from Arkansas, was off to Georgia (for a March 3 primary) where he played on the theme of being a southerner.
Tsongas, meanwhile, ventured no further south than Maryland (another March 3 primary state) where he hopes that that state’s large Greek community will help him win and to demonstrate that he is not just a regional candidate!
All of this points to the Democrats’ real dilemma in 1992—Bush may be weakened but unless the Democrats can come up with an alternative who can unite the party and the country, in the words of Republican commentator Kevin Phillips, “Bush will squeak back in because the Democrats don’t quite have it together.”
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