Had a presidential election been held in 1991, Bush would undoubtedly have been victorious. But in that year the economy slipped into recession. In a kind of hangover from the speculative excesses of the Reagan years, unemployment rose and family income stagnated. Despite victory in the
Cold War and the Gulf, public-opinion polls showed that more and more Americans believed the country was on the wrong track. No one seized more effectively on the widespread sense of unease than Bill Clinton, a former governor of Arkansas. In 1992, Clinton won the Democratic nomination by combining social liberalism (he supported abortion rights, gay rights, and affirmative action for racial minorities) with elements of conservatism (he pledged to reduce government bureaucracy and, borrowing a page from Republicans, promised to “end welfare as we know it”).
A charismatic campaigner, Clinton conveyed sincere concern for voters’ economic anxieties. To counter Republican rhetoric urging voters to blame their woes on “welfare queens” and others who cheated honest taxpayers, Clinton argued that deindustrialization caused rising inequality and the loss of good jobs. In his speech accepting the nomination, he spoke of people “working harder than ever, spending less time with their children, working nights and weekends,” while “those who cut comers and cut deals have been rewarded.”
Bush, by contrast, seemed out of touch with the day-to-day lives of ordinary Americans. On the wall of Democratic headquarters, Clinton’s campaign director posted the slogan, “It’s the Economy, Stupid”—a reminder that the economic downturn was the Democrats’ strongest card. Bush was further weakened when conservative leader Pat Buchanan delivered a fiery televised speech at the Republican national convention that declared cultural war against gays, feminists, and supporters of abortion rights. This seemed to confirm the Democratic portrait of Republicans as intolerant and divisive. From a peak of 89 percent in 1991, Bush’s popularity slumped to 29 percent during the 1992 campaign.
A third candidate, the eccentric Texas billionaire Ross Perot, also entered the fray. He attacked Bush and Clinton as lacking the economic know-how to deal with the recession and the ever-increasing national debt. That millions of Americans considered Perot a credible candidate—at one point, polls showed him leading both Clinton and Bush—testified to widespread dissatisfaction with the major parties. Perot’s support faded as election day approached, but he still received 19 percent of the popular vote, the best result for a third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Clinton won by a substantial margin, a humiliating outcome for Bush, given his earlier popularity.
Edward Sorel’s illustration for the cover of the New Yorker depicts Bill Clinton at his 1993 inauguration, flanked by some of his predecessors as president.