Why Bill Clinton Won in 1992, and How He Might Have Lost

The most interesting conflicts of the Bill Clinton years, 1992-2000, were the political maneuverings. Although a Democrat, he governed, as he acknowledged, like an Eisenhower Republican. And yet Republicans hated him and engaged in what he called “the politics of personal destruction.” An excellent politician, he never garnered more than 49 percent of the vote due to personal weaknesses and distrust.

John Green of Crash Course US History explained the governing and cultural changes. I outline the political machination, what Clinton learned from earlier Democratic leaders who failed.

“John Green teaches you about the United States as it was in the 1990s. You’ll remember from last week that the old-school Republican George H.W. Bush had lost the 1992 presidential election to a young upstart Democrat from Arkansas named Bill Clinton. Clinton was a bit of a dark horse candidate, having survived a sex scandal during the election, but a third party run by Ross Perot split the vote, and Clinton was inaugurated in 1993. John will teach you about Clinton’s foreign policy agenda, which included NATO action in the Balkans and the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO. He’ll also cover some of the domestic successes and failures of the Clinton years, including the failed attempt at healthcare reform, the pretty terrible record on GLBTQ issues, Welfare reform, which got mixed reviews, and the happier issues like the huge improvements in the economy. Also computers. Cheap, effective, readily available computers came along in the 1990s and they kind of changed the world, culminating in this video, which is the end of the internet.” Transcript.


One of the largest criticisms against President Clinton’s presidency was his inaction during the genocide in Rwanda which he comments on in his

Political Maneuvering

Presidential elections are inevitably triumphs of marketing, packaging and stage management as well as contests of ideas and conviction. One party tires of the compromises and coalition-building necessary to win the Presidency and govern the nation, leaving an opening for the other party to take charge for awhile, until their leaders exhaust themselves and lose popularity.

If the historical tide was naturally receding against the Republicans by 1992, the election was hardly handed to the Democrats. Three successive defeats–in 1980, 1984, and 1988– finally taught them the mistakes they needed to avoid in order to win.

Clinton learned from Gary Hart–how not to handle charges of infidelity, how to prepare mentally for such questions. Bill and Hillary Clinton were not blindsided by sudden, fresh and new charges the way Gary and Lee Hart were. On “60 Minutes” early in the campaign, the Clintons looked far more solid and convincing than the defensive Hart and his tight-lipped wife Lee. Hillary Clinton’s poise and comfort in the public eye reassured the public about her husband.

Clinton also borrowed Hart’s theme of “it’s time for a new generation of leadership,” which played far better in 1992, twelve years into Republican control of the Presidency, than in 1984, when Ronald Reagan had been in office only four years and Hart first used the theme.

Clinton learned from Walter Mondale not to appear too eager to pander to traditional Democratic interest groups such as unions, teachers, and the need to distance himself from Jesse Jackson. Mondale had apparently lost ground by taking a strict position on the separation of church and state, using language many religious Americans viewed as too rigid and too secular. The substance of Clinton’s position was no different from Mondale’s, but he used language that affirmed the rights of religious groups in public settings.

From Michael Dukakis, Clinton’s staff learned to never, never let a charge or an attack go unanswered during a campaign. Quick and immediate response was a cornerstone of Clinton’s day-to-day “war room” strategy. Bush had successfully portrayed Dukakis as “soft on welfare”; “soft on crime,” a “card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union” who paroled criminals too easily and opposed the death penalty. Bush seriously undermined Dukakis’ support among environmentalists, a key Democratic constituency, by staging an event in front of the polluted Boston Harbor–Dukakis territory–and declaring his desire to be “the environmental President.”

Clinton positioned himself as tougher than Dukakis–promising workfare and cut-offs for able-bodied welfare recipients who refused to work, supporting “three strikes and you’re out” mandatory sentence legislation, the death penalty, and a less doctrinaire approach to civil liberties. To shore up support among environmentalists, he chose Al Gore, author of a best-selling book on the environment, as his running mate.

It helped Clinton that he was not a “Massachusetts liberal” but a Southern moderate. He could appeal culturally to crucial swing voters in the Sunbelt in a way that Dukakis could not. And yet he had strong ties to the Northeastern liberal establishment, as a graduate of Georgetown University in Washington, Yale Law School and having been a Rhodes Scholar in England.

In fairness to Dukakis, Democrats in 1992 had an issue they didn’t have in 1988–the economy. In the midst of the recession, they successfully made the case that Republicans’ “laissez faire” approach to the economy wasn’t enough. More government intervention and regulation, especially in the area of health care and the environment, were necessary, they asserted.

And an issue that had hurt Democrats for a generation–the Cold War–was no longer. “Reagan Democrats” who judged Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis weak on defense, soft on communism could now in good conscience return to the Democratic fold.

Clinton was helped greatly by other trends which he helped nurture:

1. the emergence of regional and national black leaders other than Jesse Jackson with whom Clinton could form alliances. Men such as John Lewis, Maynard Jackson, Ron Brown, Vernon Jordan, Mike Espy, and Kurt Schmoke provided cover for Clinton when he rebuffed Jackson by attacking Sister Souljah and would not consider Jackson for vice president. The emergence of these leaders corresponded with a growing concern in the black community about black-on-black violence. This allowed Clinton to make an appeal to “law and order” that blacks as well as whites could resonate to.

2. the fading of traditional liberalism as espoused by Ted Kennedy, Mario Cuomo and Tom Harkin. Kennedy fell from grace in the eyes of many progressives after his overwhelming loss to Jimmy Carter in 1980, his divorce, rumors of alcohol abuse, and the 1991 rape trial of his nephew William Kennedy Smith. Cuomo, after months of Hamlet-like indecision, decided not to run for president in 1992. Harkin in early 1992 lost primaries handily and could not claim the liberal mantle. In previous years, Democratic presidential candidates had to vow utmost loyalty to big labor to win the Democratic nomination. Labor’s decreased power and the ascendancy of the more moderate “new Dems” in the Democratic Leadership Council (chaired by Bill Clinton) gave the Democratic nominee an ideological freedom he didn’t have in previous elections.

3. the use of satellite television and “talk radio” to bypass the journalistic filter and speak directly, unedited, to the American people. Dukakis suffered electorally because he failed to manipulate media coveage and exercise control over the campaign agenda. Clinton and his staff were much better at bypassing traditional media and communicating directly with “the people.”

Clinton’s Personal Strengths

And then there were the personal and strategic strengths of Bill Clinton. Over the years, he had developed a large corps of loyal followers, “the Arkansas Travellers”, who enthusiastically took time off to tell the voters of the early primary states, especially New Hampshire, about him. This candidate was not the passionless technocrat Michael Dukakis was. When people got to know him, they were often charmed and seduced into forgiving or forgetting his negatives.

To win the presidency, Clinton demonstrated toughness, stamina, indefatigable energy and good nature in the face of difficult odds and rude questions. He proved to be a good listener, in touch with average Americans, in a way that George Bush did not seem to be. Bush did not know the price of milk, what a grocery store scanner was, seemed tired and impatient with such questions. Bill Clinton, in contrast, acted like he enjoyed the political process, he was having fun, and that public service was a privilege.

Strategically, Clinton’s creative choice of Al Gore as running mate picked the Southern lock. And at the Democratic Convention, after months of mostly negative publicity, Clinton was successfully “re-introduced” to the American people on his own terms, through a “Man From Hope” video and acceptance speech. He and Gore built on the momentum of the convention by immediately embarking on a bus tour across America with their wives, a roaring success.

But one must acknowledge that Clinton was lucky. Ross Perot withdrew from the race at a strategic moment in the summer to give Clinton an opening. Then Perot changed his mind and rejoined the race, looking goofy. He still managed to win 19 percent of the vote, the largest ever for a third-party candidate. While exit polls on election day indicated that Perot’s voters would have split about evenly between Clinton and Bush, some analysts believe Perot’s candidacy helped Clinton more than Bush.

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