American Politics from George H.W. Bush to September 11, 2001

The conservative “Reagan Revolution” lingered over the presidential election of 1988. At stake was the legacy of a newly empowered conservative movement, a movement that would move forward with Reagan’s vice president, George H. W. Bush, who triumphed over Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis with a promise to continue the conservative work that had commenced in the 1980s.

George H. W. Bush, whose father, Prescott Bush, was a United States Senator from Connecticut, was a World War II veteran, president of a successful oil company, served as chair of the Republican National Committee, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and was elected to the House of Representatives from his district in Texas. After failing to best Reagan in the 1980 Republican primaries, he was elected as his vice president in 1980 and again in 1984. In 1988, Michael Dukakis, a proud liberal from Massachusetts, challenged Bush for the White House.

Dukakis ran a weak campaign, but Bush, a Connecticut aristocrat who had never been fully embraced by “movement conservatism,” hammered him with moral and cultural issues. Bush said Dukakis had blocked recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in Massachusetts schools, that he was a “card-carrying member” of the American Civil Liberties Union. Bush meanwhile dispatched his eldest son, George W. Bush, as his ambassador to the religious right. Bush also infamously released a political ad featuring the face of Willie Horton, a black Massachusetts man and convicted murderer who raped a woman after taking advantage of a Massachusetts prison furlough program during Dukakis’ tenure. “By the time we’re finished,” Bush’s campaign manager, Lee Atwater, said, “they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.” Liberals attacked conservatives for perpetuating the ugly “code word” politics of the old Southern Strategy. Buoyed by such attacks, Bush won a large victory and entered the White House

Bush’s election signaled Americans’ continued embrace of Reagan’s conservative program and further evidenced the utter disarray of the Democratic Party. American liberalism, so stunningly triumphant in the 1960s, was now in full retreat. It was still, as one historian put it, the “Age of Reagan.”

The Soviet Union collapsed during Bush’s tenure. Devastated by a stagnant economy, mired in a costly and disastrous war in Afghanistan, confronted with dissident factions in Eastern Europe, and rocked by internal dissent, the Soviet Union crumbled. Soviet leader and reformer Mikhail Gorbachev loosened the Soviet Union’s tight personal restraints and censorship (“glasnost“) and liberalized the Soviet political machinery (“perestroika“). Eastern Bloc nations turned against their communist organizations and declared their independence from the Soviet Union. Gorbachev let them go. The Soviet Union unraveled. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned his office, declaring that the Soviet Union no longer existed. At the Kremlin, the hammer and sickle was lowered and the Russian tricolor was raised.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union left the United States as the world’s only remaining superpower. Global capitalism seemed triumphant. Observers wondered if some final stage of history had been reached, if the old battles had ended and a new global consensus built around peace and open markets would reign forever. “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such,” wrote Francis Fukuyama in his much-talked-about 1989 essay, “The End of History?” Assets in Eastern Europe were privatized and auctioned off as newly independent nations introduced market economies. New markets were rising in Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. India, for instance, began liberalizing its economic laws and opening itself up to international investment in 1991. China’s economic reforms, advanced by Chairman Deng Xiaoping and his handpicked successors, accelerated as privatization and foreign investment proceeded.

The post-Cold War world was not without international conflicts, however. When Iraq invaded the small but oil-rich nation of Kuwait in 1990, Congress granted President Bush approval to intervene. The United States laid the groundwork for intervention–Operation Desert Shield–in August and commenced combat operations–Operation Desert Storm–in January 1991. With the memories of Vietnam still fresh, many Americans were hesitant to support military action that could expand into a protracted war or long-term commitment of troops. But the Gulf War was a swift victory for the United States. New technologies–including laser-guided precision bombing–amazed Americans, who could now watch 24-hour live coverage of the war on The Cable News Network (CNN). The Iraqi army disintegrated after only a hundred hours of ground combat. President Bush and his advisers opted not to pursue the war into Baghdad and risk an occupation and insurgency. And so the war was won. Many wondered if the “ghosts of Vietnam” had been exorcised. Bush won enormous popularity. Gallup polls showed a job approval rating as high as 89% in the weeks after the end of the war.

Oil wells on fire.

The Iraqi military set fire to Kuwait’s oil fields during the Gulf War, many of which burned for months and caused massive pollution. Photograph of oil well fires outside Kuwait City, March 21, 1991. Wikimedia.

President Bush’s popularity seemed to suggest an easy reelection in 1992. Bush faced a primary challenge from political commentator Patrick Buchanan, a former Reagan and Nixon White House adviser, who cast Bush as a moderate, an unworthy steward of the conservative movement who was unwilling to fight for conservative Americans in the nation’s ongoing “culture war.” Buchanan did not defeat Bush in the Republican primaries, but he inflicted enough damage to weaken his candidacy.

The Democratic Party nominated a relative unknown, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Dogged by charges of marital infidelity and draft-dodging during the Vietnam War, Clinton was a consummate politician and had both enormous charisma and a skilled political team. He framed himself as a “New Democrat,” a centrist open to free trade, tax cuts, and welfare reform. Twenty-two years younger than Bush, and the first Baby Boomer to make a serious run at the presidency, Clinton presented the campaign as a generational choice. During the campaign he appeared on MTV. He played the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show. And he told voters that he could offer the United States a new way forward.

Bush ran on his experience and against Clinton’s moral failings. The GOP convention in Houston that summer featured speeches from Pat Buchanan and religious leader Pat Robertson decrying the moral decay plaguing American life. Clinton was denounced as a social liberal that would weaken the American family with his policies and his moral character. But, Clinton was able to convince voters that his moderated Southern brand of liberalism would be more effective than the moderate conservatism of George Bush. Bush’s candidacy, of course, was most crippled by a sudden economic recession. “It’s the economy, stupid,” Clinton’s political team reminded the country.

Clinton would win the election, but the Reagan Revolution still reigned. Clinton and his running mate, Tennessee Senator Albert Gore, Jr., both moderate southerners, promised a path away from the old liberalism of the 1970s and 1980s. They were Democrats, but ran conservatively.

In his first term Clinton set out an ambitious agenda that included an economic stimulus package, universal health insurance, a continuation of the Middle East peace talks initiated by Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker, welfare reform, and a completion of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to abolish trade barriers between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada.

With NAFTA, Clinton, reversed decades of Democratic opposition to free trade and opened the nation’s northern and southern borders to the free flow of capital and goods. Critics, particularly in the Midwest’s Rust Belt, blasted the agreement for opening American workers to deleterious competition by low-paid foreign workers. Many American factories did relocate by setting up shops–maquilas–in northern Mexico that took advantage of Mexico’s low wages. Thousands of Mexicans rushed to the maquilas. Thousands more continued on past the border.

If NAFTA opened American borders to goods and services, people still navigated strict legal barriers to immigration. Policymakers believed that free trade would create jobs and wealth that would incentivize Mexican workers to stay home, and yet multitudes continued to leave for opportunities in el norte. The 1990s proved that prohibiting illegal migration was, if not impossible, exceedingly difficult. Poverty, political corruption, violence, and hopes for a better life in the United States–or simply higher wages–continued to lure immigrants across the border. Between 1990 and 2000, the proportion of foreign-born individuals in the United States grew from 7.9 percent to 12.9 percent, and the number of undocumented immigrants tripled from 3.5 million to 11.2 during the same period. While large numbers continued to migrate to traditional immigrant destinations—California, Texas, New York, Florida, New Jersey, and Illinois—the 1990s also witnessed unprecedented migration to the American South. Among the fastest-growing immigrant destination states were Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, and North Carolina, all of which had immigration growth rates in excess of 100% during the decade.

In response to the continued influx of immigrants and the vocal complaints of anti-immigration activists, policymakers responded with such initiatives as Operations Gatekeeper and Hold the Line, which attempted to make crossing the border more prohibitive. By strengthening physical barriers and beefing up Border Patrol presence in border cities and towns, a new strategy of “funneling” immigrants to dangerous and remote crossing areas emerged. Immigration officials hoped the brutal natural landscape would serve as a natural deterrent.

In his first weeks in office, Clinton reviewed Department of Defense policies restricting homosexuals from serving in the armed forces. He pushed through a compromise plan, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” that removed any questions about sexual preference in induction interview but also required that gay servicemen and women keep their sexual preference private. The policy alienated many–social conservatives were outraged and his credentials as a conservative southerner suffered; liberals recoiled at continued anti-gay discrimination and his credentials as a liberal suffered–and cost Clinton political capital.

In his first term Clinton put forward universal health care as a major policy goal and put First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in charge of the initiative. But the push for a national healthcare law collapsed on itself. Conservatives revolted, the health care industry flooded the airwaves with attack ads, and voters bristled.

The mid-term elections of 1994 were a disaster for the Democrats, who lost the House of Representatives for the first time since 1952. Congressional Republicans, led by Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich and Texas Congressman Dick Armey, offered a new “Contract with America.” Republican candidates from around the nation gathered on the steps of the Capitol to pledge their commitment to a conservative legislative blueprint to be enacted if the GOP won control of the House. The strategy worked.

Social conservatives were mobilized by an energized group of religious activists, especially the Christian Coalition, led by Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed. Robertson was a television minister and entrepreneur whose 1988 long shot run for the Republican presidential nomination brought him a massive mailing list and network of religiously motivated voters around the country. From that mailing list, the Christian Coalition organized around the country, seeking to influence politics on the local and national level.

In 1996 the generational contest played out again when the Republicans nominated another aging war hero, Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, but Clinton again won the election, becoming the first Democrat to serve back-back terms since Franklin Roosevelt. He was aided in part by the amelioration of conservatives by his signing of welfare reform legislation, “The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996,” which decreased welfare benefits, restricted eligibility, and turned over many responsibilities to states. Clinton said it would “break the cycle of dependency.”

Clinton presided over a booming economy fueled by emergent computing technologies. Personal computers had skyrocketed in sales and the internet become a mass phenomenon. Communication and commerce were never again the same. But the tech boom was driven by companies and the ’90s saw robust innovation and entrepreneurship. Investors scrambled to find the next Microsoft or Apple, the suddenly massive computing companies. But it was the internet, “the world wide web,” that sparked a bonanza. The “dot-com boom” fueled enormous economic growth and substantial financial speculation to find the next Google or Amazon.

Republicans, defeated at the polls in 1996 and 1998, looked for other ways to sink Clinton’s presidency. Political polarization seemed unprecedented as the Republican congress spent millions on investigations hoping to uncover some shred of damning evidence to sink Clinton’s presidency, whether it be real estate deals, White House staffing, or adultery. Rumors of sexual misconduct had always swirled around Clinton, and congressional investigations targeted the allegations. Called to testify before a grand jury and in a statement to the American public, Clinton denied having “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky. Republicans used the testimony to allege perjury. Congress voted to impeach the president. It was a radical and wildly unpopular step. On a vote that mostly fell upon party lines, Clinton was acquitted by the Senate.

The 2000 election pit Vice President Albert Gore, Jr. against George W. Bush, the son of the former president who had been elected twice as Texas governor. Gore, wary of Clinton’s recent impeachment despite Clinton’s enduring approval ratings, distanced himself from the president and eight years of relative prosperity and ran as a pragmatic, moderate liberal.

Bush, too, ran as a moderate, distancing himself from the cruelties of past Republican candidates by claiming to represent a “compassionate conservatism” and a new faith-based politics. Bush was an outspoken evangelical. In a presidential debate, he declared Jesus Christ his favorite political philosopher. He promised to bring church leaders into government and his campaign appealed to churches and clergy to get out the vote. Moreover, he promised to bring honor, dignity, and integrity to the Oval Office, a clear reference to Clinton. Utterly lacking the political charisma that had propelled Clinton, Gore withered under Bush’s attacks. Instead of trumpeting the Clinton presidency, Gore found himself answering the media’s questions about whether he was sufficiently an “alpha male” and whether he had “invented the internet.”

Few elections have been as close and contentious as the 2000 election, which ended in a deadlock. Gore had won the popular vote by 500,000 votes, but the Electoral College math seemed to have failed him. On election night the media had called Florida for Gore, but then Bush made gains and news organizations backpedaled and then they declared the state for Bush—and Bush the probable president-elect. Gore conceded privately to Bush, then backpedaled as the counts edged back toward Gore yet again. When the nation awake the next day, it was unclear who had been elected president. The close Florida vote triggered an automatic recount.

Lawyers descended on Florida. The Gore campaign called for manual recounts in several counties. Local election boards, Florida Secretary of State Kathleen Harris, and the Florida Supreme Court all weighed in until the United Supreme Court stepped in and, in an unprecedented 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore, ruled that the recount had to end. Bush was awarded Florida by a margin of 537 votes, enough to win him the state, a majority in the Electoral College, and the presidency.

In his first months in office, Bush fought to push forward enormous tax cuts skewed toward America’s highest earners and struggled with an economy burdened by the bursting of the dot-com-bubble. Old fights seemed ready to be fought, and then everything changed.