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Clinton Isn't Dukakis Deja Vu All Over Again : Politics: Republicans have deceived themselves in thinking that 1992 is just 1988 + 4. In fact, it marks a national sea-change. Must Bush pull a fast one?

August 02, 1992|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is publisher of American Political Report and Business and Public Affairs Fortnightly

WASHINGTON — Now that Secretary of State James A. Baker III is weighing re-enactment of his 1988 campaign role as the steel behind George Bush's clay, the question whether a Bakerized 1992 campaign can also bring off a second election miracle is one of the summer's most misleading. A national political sea-change is at work in the 1990s, and if the GOP doesn't revise its strategies quickly, the White House will be lost this year instead of in the expected quail-shoot (Quayle Shoot) of 1996.

Far from repeating 1988 circumstances, 1992 reflects a much more advanced stage of domestic and economic problems--and Bush weaknesses--that were only beginning to emerge four years ago. Meanwhile, from upbeat Clinton-Gore bus rides through flag-waving small Midwest towns to Democratic attacks on Bush as a second Herbert H. Hoover, one senses that this time the party of Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman finally understands its challenge, and that the souffle of Bush's never-fulfilled promise to the electorate--dismissed even by 30-40% of Republicans--will be unable to rise twice.

For the new revitalized Democrats, losing to Bush with Michael S. Dukakis has become recognized for what it was: a sign of ideological and tactical inadequacy. Real leaders don't lose to George Herbert Walker Bush. This spring, Bill Clinton, who has understood that 1988 was an incipient Democratic opportunity, wisely immersed himself in the Democratic equivalent of a critical studies program--studying Dukakis' mistakes and understanding the potential approaches, generally populist, that Dukakis had failed to grasp. July's Democratic convention reflected this new aggressiveness. So did post-convention polls giving Clinton an average 25-point lead over Bush.

By contrast, until the Clinton sea-change started sinking in two weeks ago, Bush and his strategists were happy to stroll down Memory Lane. Winners in 1988 despite a 17-point July poll deficit, they assumed they'd win again in 1992, especially if Baker came back, because American voters wanted Republican presidents and values in the White House.

Ahem. A tougher Democrat than Dukakis might have won even in 1988. In June of that year, 45% of Americans viewed Bush unfavorably, and a majority didn't want to make him President--until a critical swing bloc ultimately decided, quite plausibly, that they wanted and liked Dukakis even less.

This year, by contrast, Bush is no longer a probable failure but, in many respects, a proven failure. His string of record and near-record negatives is extraordinary.

-- The biggest job-approval collapse in American presidential history--down almost 60 points from spring, 1991, to summer, 1992!

-- The first incumbent President to be beaten in election trial heats by an independent presidential contender who had not yet declared!

-- The first chief executive to choose a vice president rated in public opinion polls for four straight years as unfit to become President!

-- The weakest economic growth during a four-year presidential term since Hoover!

-- Possibly the largest ratio of Americans (83%) ever to rate the country as being "seriously off on the wrong track."

-- Arguably the longest economic downturn since the 1930s, with the lingering possibility of what would be an unprecedented "triple dip."

-- And, unfortunately, the first President to go to war against a foreign dictator he himself had built up with U.S. money and technology--only to mismanage the war's end so that the dictator survived to keep thumbing his nose!

None of these debacles or indictments existed in 1988; anybody who prophesied them four years ago would have been laughed at.

The Democratic contrast with 1988 is also striking, but in the more favorable sense. Clinton, unlike Dukakis, is a tough, battle-scarred nominee with a political instinct for the jugular, now presumably Bush's. The Democratic Party is much more united. And Clinton and Al Gore, both in their mid-40s, present a strong generational appeal, which the 1988 Dukakis-Bentsen ticket did not.

Ross Perot is another critical factor new to 1992. Eight years of Republican rule had not created an angry third-party movement in 1988, but by 1992, 12 years had--and with Bush as Perot's target. Even though the billionaire businessman never became a declared presidential candidate, so many white middle-class suburbanites and Republicans rallied to his independent banner and centrist indictment that he moved ahead of Bush in the polls. During April, May and June, Perot-voiced criticisms of Bush and the GOP were far more withering than any the still-crippled Democrats could have developed. So despite just four months' longevity, the Perot movement ultimately seems to have become a way-station for many disenchanted voters to leave the Republican coalition.

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