How important is the character of a president or presidential candidate, as compared to the public policy results he or she achieves, or is likely to achieve? How important should character be?
The death of George H. W. Bush has inspired many editorials, television commentaries, and other opinion pieces lauding his personal dignity and decency and civility, as well as his pragmatism and prudence in the development and implementation of public policy. This is to be expected. There’s nothing like death to enhance a president’s reputation, especially that of a Republican president in the collective opinion of a liberal media.
But if President Bush was so great, then why was he defeated for re-election in 1992? Why weren’t the attributes we celebrate now more appreciated back then? After all, of all the presidents defeated for re-election, only one—William Howard Taft, defeated for re-election in a three-way race for President with Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt in 1912—won a lower percentage of the popular vote (23%) than President Bush achieved with his re-election bid. George Bush’s 37% of the popular vote in 1992, if not a record, nonetheless reflects the failure of the traits we laud today to inspire the voters to give him a second term.
The record indicates that the public considers public policy results—whether real or imagined—to be more important than personal character in shaping a president’s popularity. Commentators have singled out two factors which, probably more than anything else, helped doom President Bush’s efforts to achieve a second term.
First, there was President Bush’s infamous compromise with congressional Democrats to raise taxes in exchange for spending cuts, despite his “Read my lips—no new taxes” pledge at the 1988 Republican National Convention. Never mind that his agreement helped close the deficit and paved the way for the balanced budgets produced by Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich a decade later. His agreement alienated conservative Republicans led by Newt Gingrich, helped fuel a party revolt in the primaries led by Patrick Buchanan, and weakened him going into the 1992 general election against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.
Perhaps even worse was the perception among the American people in 1991 and 1992 that President Bush was indifferent to the economic plight of ordinary Americans and inept in managing the economy. Never mind that he proved himself a gifted military and diplomatic leader, managing the free world’s response to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany, as well as the expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait without entangling the United States too badly in the politics of Iraq. When the public thinks economic times are good, or at least improving, the president always gets the credit; when the public thinks economic times are bad, the president always gets the blame. Whether a given president’s actions have any impact on the economy is debatable but irrelevant to the public in giving its verdict.
Did the voters in 1992 treat President Bush unfairly? Certainly concerns about taxes, spending, and the deficit are legitimate, and anyone who studies or goes into presidential politics knows, or should know, the importance of public perceptions of the president’s handling of the economy in determining the outcome of presidential elections: Fair or not, economic policy concerns trump character: That’s the way things are, and President Bush knew that going into politics. A good sign of his character is that in the quarter century since the voters sent him packing, he rarely complained of his ill fortune.
So let us praise President Bush for his character. But let us not forget that in 1992 the voters gave more importance to results—whether real or imagined—over character in assessing President Bush, and thereby found him wanting. And while we can’t go back in time to replay the 1992 election, we may want to ponder, on the basis of our experience with twenty-six more years of American history under our belts, whether we failed to take character enough into account in assessing President Bush’s record in 1992, and whether we have failed to do so in the elections since then. If so, then we have roughly two years to assess not just the public policy proposals of our current crop of presidential candidates, but the degree to which they emulate the traits we now admire in the character of George H. W. Bush before we next elect (or re-elect) a president.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.