It has long seemed to me that the United States began to lose its way in 1992, when Bill Clinton defeated George. H. W. Bush for the presidency. The Berlin Wall had fallen. The Soviet Union had disbanded. The Cold War had ended. Bush was highly popular in the wake of the First Gulf War.
Leading Democrats – such as Gov. Mario Cuomo, Jesse Jackson and Sen. Al Gore — declined to run. (Gore’s son had been gravely injured in an auto accident.) Instead, Gov. Bill Clinton, former Gov. Jerry Brown, Senators Paul Tsongas, Bob Kerrey and Tom Harkin all joined the chase.
Bush reappointed Alan Greenspan as chairman of the Fed, but later charged that Greenspan reneged on a promise to ease monetary policy slightly, to compensate for the tax increase that Bush had requested to pay for the war and the mild recession (July 1990-March ’91) that had resulted. The recovery in the year before the election was unusually tepid.
Populist commentator Pat Buchanan ran against Bush from the right in Republican primaries. Though he won no states, he polled more votes than expected, especially in New Hampshire. As Buchanan faded, an emboldened H. Ross Perot entered the campaign as an independent candidate, exited, and re-entered. He won 19 percent of the popular vote in the end but failed to gain a single electoral vote.
Clinton won the election. After 12 years as vice president and president, Bush was all-too-familiar; Clinton was fresh. Bush had been the youngest Navy pilot in World War II. Clinton was a Baby Boomer who skipped Vietnam. Bush lacked energy; Clinton was a dynamo.
America enjoyed a few years of exhilaration in the Nineties: the introduction of the Internet; a dot.com mania; and, thanks to eight years of brisk growth, a balanced federal budget, after 20 years of surging deficits,. Looking back, though, Clinton was ill prepared by his years as Arkansas governor to make foreign policy. Two years as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford had made him overconfident as well.
Unilateral humanitarian interventions followed in the Balkan civil wars that flared after the Soviet Union collapsed. NATO expansions were undertaken that the Bush administration, expecting a second term, had promised would not occur. Russia protested, but was powerless to prevent any of it. Vladimir Putin replaced Boris Yeltsin and grew increasingly resentful.
Without the discipline imposed by of the Cold War, domestic politics turned rambunctious as well. Clinton empowered his wife to seek to overhaul U.S. health insurance. Congressman Newt Gingrich replied with his “Contract with America,” gained 54 House seats and 9 Senate seats in the 1994 mid-term elections. Republican enmity toward Clinton, which had begun to overspill the bounds of decency soon after the inauguration, reached flood levels with the impeachment and failed conviction proceedings of Clinton’s second term.
The next two presidencies, 16 years, amounted to more of the same. NATO expansion continued, reaching the borders of Russia. Relations with China remained amicable throughout. George W. Bush started wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Barack Obama pursued regime change in Libya (successfully) and Syria (unsuccessfully). The third presidential go-round, which started out in 2015 as a presumed Bush-Clinton rematch (Jeb Bush vs. Hillary Clinton) is what eventually got us to Trump.
Now Americans may be about to do it again – to prefer youth and personal ambition to consensus. The situation today is a little like 1992 in reverse. An over-abundance of Democratic Party candidates are eager to take on Donald Trump (or, in the event that he prefers not to run, Vice President Mike Pence). California Sen.
Kamala Harris damaged former Vice President Joe Biden in the debate last week. She projected youth and vigor. Biden was cautious; he had to contend with his record over 44 years of swiftly changing national politics. That Harris used the murky issue of federal court-ordered busing to attack Biden struck me as especially low. Nevertheless, Harris emerged as a candidate capable of taking on Trump. Her next challenge will be to finesse the health-care issue that handcuffed her in the debate.
She is also the candidate to watch out for, as Clinton was the candidate to watch out for in 1992. Clinton’s character didn’t come into focus until 1995, when First in His Class, David Maraniss’s brilliant biography, appeared. Harris will presumably receive a series of earlier screenings. Her appeal to her base, women and African Americans, is obvious. It remains to be seen whether she can persuade swing constituencies near the center of American political life,
Leaping far ahead, my guess is that only a better-than-expected showing by Biden or South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg in the California primary on Super Tuesday, March 3 (if they survive that long), will force Harris to wait. Bill Clinton would have been a much better president if he had first been elected in 1996. Mitt Romney might have defeated Hillary Clinton if he had waited until 2016.
But the young and/or the restless have dominated the top of the food chain for the last 28 years. True, it was John F. Kennedy who first jumped the queue, an element of collective memory that Clinton employed to enhance his license. With the exception of Barack Obama, they haven’t been good for the country.
David Warsh, an economic historian and long-time columnist on business, politics and media, is proprietor of Somerville-based economicprincipals.com, where this essay first ran.