Politics & Policy

Why Bush 41, a Great President, Won Only One Term

President George H.W. Bush at the White House after he addressed U.S. troops deployed to Saudi Arabia, August 29, 1990. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)
After twelve years of GOP rule, the political winds were not at his back in 1992.

The passing of George H. W. Bush has brought forth a multitude of tributes praising his public leadership and personal virtue — to which I say “Amen.” Bush, in my opinion, was one of the great presidents of the 20th century. He has too long been overshadowed, first by Ronald Reagan, the great leader of the conservative movement who beat him for the 1980 GOP nomination; then by Bill Clinton, the youthful and “cool” governor from Arkansas who defeated him in the 1992 election; and finally, by his own son, George W. Bush, who won the second term that his father could not, but whose tenure was much more controversial.

It is not my purpose here to enumerate the reasons that Bush 41 was such a good president. Instead, I’d like to stipulate that he was, and try to understand why his successes in office were insufficient to win reelection in 1992. Ultimately, his presidency was cut short by forces outside his control.

Governing a country as diverse and complex as ours is no little feat. It is not just that presidents have to manage the foreign and domestic affairs of the nation; they also have to tend to their political coalitions, which are never set in stone. Usually, this is too difficult to accomplish for more than eight years.

The biggest problem that most presidencies face is the business cycle, with all its vagaries. Presidents are quick to take credit for good economies, but this means they get stuck with the blame for recessions. The business cycle has been a major factor in presidential politics going all the way back to 1840, when Martin Van Buren was bounced from office partly because of the Panic of 1837.

SLIDESHOW: Remembering George H.W. Bush

Holding together an electoral coalition for more than eight years is also difficult. Coalitions do not form out of midair, nor are they purely the product of demographic forces outside of anybody’s control. They have to be built and maintained by political entrepreneurs who see an opportunity to craft a majority around personalities and policies. The factions that make up the constituent parts of a majority need not be in harmony with one another on all matters. In fact, the prospects of disharmony increase over time — as a president at first passes legislation that unifies his coalition, what is left are items that do not bring the party together and may even drive it apart.

These are the challenges that a single president faces over eight years. They become enormously greater over the course of twelve years or more. Expansions in the business cycle rarely last for more than a decade, which means that a recession tends to be right around the corner after a third consecutive victory. And if the party has been in office for that length of time, when the recession comes, it will likely get all of the blame (as opposed to a recession at the beginning of the first term, which can be blamed on the failures of the other side).

The coalitional politics get trickier, too, thanks in part to the 22nd Amendment, which states, “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice.” Franklin Roosevelt’s coalitions in 1940 and 1944 (when he was reelected to his third and fourth terms) were at least in part personal in nature. Voters stayed with FDR because of him. But with the establishment of a two-term limit, a party must find a new candidate, who may not be able to re-create the old coalition.

Factor into this the possibility of negative external shocks, such as wars or domestic crises, that make voters want change, and you wind up with the tendency that has characterized much of our national politics: two terms and then out, for each party. It is not a hard-and-fast rule, but it is pretty evident in our history.

Bush defied this general trend by winning a third consecutive term for the Republican party — a testament to voter confidence in Reagan-Bush governance. Alas, winning a fourth term would have been truly extraordinary. Only the Jeffersonian Republicans, Lincolnian Republicans, Teddy Rooosevelt–McKinley Republicans, and FDR Democrats have managed that. And at the risk of “special pleading,” one can argue that side factors in these cases helped the incumbent party win a fourth consecutive term (or more). Westward expansion left the Federalist opponents of Jefferson electorally isolated; the Civil War and Reconstruction gave the Lincoln Republicans a boost; the unlikely rise of Teddy Roosevelt transformed the Republican party and extended its rule; the Great Depression’s end and the foreign troubles that led to World War II gave FDR and Truman multiple terms beyond two.

Bush had no such political winds at his back. The economy sank into a recession in 1990. It was a mild one, in historical perspective, but the recovery from it felt very slow, making Republican “trickle-down economics” an easy target of Democratic ire. And the politics in Bush’s own party had grown untenable. The GOP coalition created in 1980 was built on tax cuts, military-spending increases, and cuts in domestic spending. The latter proved politically impossible, but the Republicans still cut taxes and increased military spending, yielding a massive budget deficit. This, in turn, divided the Reagan coalition by the 1990s: Conservative Republicans were still demanding spending cuts, while moderate Republicans and middle-of-the-road voters still opposed them.

Between the recession and the politics of deficit reduction, Bush’s reelection was a tough prospect. The country at large was ready for a change, and Republicans were eager to reset their political coalition. If Bush had first been elected in, say, 1980, I think he would have been easily reelected four years later. But to be elected as a Republican in 1988 after eight years of GOP governance made for a very difficult challenge indeed.

It says a lot about the quality of his governance that he has been remembered so fondly. We should remember that getting reelected is not a necessary condition for being a good president. Sometimes we the people are so “itchy” for a change that we fail to reelect a president who was in fact very good at his job. That was the case with George H. W. Bush.


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