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Two-party politics in America.

CAMPAIGN '92 marks the bicentennial of the unanimous re-election of George Washington as well as the centennial of the defeat of a Republican incumbent, Benjamin Harrison. It will be the fifty-second presidential election since the implementation of the United States Constitution in 1788. These campaigns have resulted in the selection of forty American presidents, only thirteen of whom have been re-elected to a second full four-year term. With a ninety per cent approval rating during Desert Storm last year, George Bush appeared to be well on his way to becoming the fourteenth incumbent to achieve that distinction. Perhaps he might have even come close to replicating the Washington achievement of 1792. After a steady decline in the polls, however, there is now the possibility of his sharing the Harrison fate of 1892 by becoming the tenth sitting president defeated in a re-election campaign. In that year the rise of the Populists split the Republican Party, allowing the Democrats to gain an upset victory over an incumbent president.

The sixty point drop in George Bush's approval rating has been one of the most significant developments of recent American presidential politics. Reasons for that presidential misfortune are complex. The victory over Iraq was almost simultaneous with the triumph over communism and the ending of the Cold War. Unfortunately for President Bush, those sweeping events of 1991 had the same effect as the terminations of the World Wars in 1918 and 1945 in shifting popular attention from diplomacy to domestic affairs. Observance of the fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Harbour at the end of last year further made the point that for most of this century Americans have been entangled in the problems of the world.

Suddenly in January of this year there was a clamorous, media-driven demand that full attention now be focused on domestic problems. It resulted in a growing consensus that in deference to the interests of the world, American political leadership had ignored growing problems in health care, education, the environment and the economy. In spite of the fact that solutions to these problems would cost enormous sums of money, there was also a growing demand that the awesome problem of the federal deficit be solved. The contradiction posed by those demands created a public frustration extremely damaging to the incumbent president who quickly plummeted in public opinion polls. To an almost unbelievable extent the hero of Desert Storm in 1991 became the political bete noire of 1992. The most common complaints against the President were that he had broken his pledge not to raise taxes and his alleged disinterest in the economy which had been troublesome since early 1990. As an ideological centrist, Bush was an easy target from both ends of the political spectrum. Many Americans seem to believe that the nation is economically declining and a change in political leadership is necessary.

When the campaign began in March, Bush became one of the few recent presidents ever to encounter serious intra-party opposition. A conservative journalist and former presidential speech writer in the Reagan administration, Patrick Buchanan, entered the presidential preferential primaries as a Republican. In the first contest in New Hampshire he received about a third of the votes, signalling the fact that the President was in serious political trouble. The last incumbent president running for re-election seriously challenged in the New Hampshire primary was Lyndon Johnson in 1968. He soon withdrew from the contest. Fortunately for President Bush, New Hampshire, a very conservative state, was Buchanan's most successful venture. As the primary season wore on, the challenger's support steadily declined.

Though badly crippled, Bush was soon assured of renomination long before the Convention in August. In spite of his renomination, an honour not denied an incumbent since 1884, Bush is starting this Fall's campaign without a strongly united party. He is running the risk of having only mild support from the right wing of the Republican Party alienated over such issues as taxation and public support for avant garde art. These were among the principal complaints against the President which energized the Buchanan campaign. Vice-President Dan Quayle, whose selection four years ago was calculated to balance the Republican ticket, has been given the task of holding the Right Wing of the party in the November election. Bush's re-election may depend on the success of that assignment. In desperation, Secretary of State James Baker resigned his post in mid-August to direct the President's re-election campaign.

By the autumn of 1991, Democrats interested in their party's presidential nomination were obliged to organize their campaigns and register with the Federal Elections Commission. Because of the President's popularity in the wake of Desert Storm, none of that party's potentially winning candidates was willing to challenge an apparently impregnable incumbent. By the time of Bush's decline in the polls, it was too late to enter Campaign 92. Among those Democrats who did organize a campaign was the nation's longest serving governor, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, a border southern state. He had been active in the Democratic Leadership Council organized in the 1980s to move that party away from its left wing and toward the centre of the political spectrum. It was a project similar to the effort made recently by Neil Kinnock of the British Labour Party. Clinton soon emerged as the new leader of the Democrats assured of his party's presidential nomination at the national convention held in July. By the time of that convention party liberals were generally reconciled to the Arkansas governor whose name was placed in nomination by Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, generally regarded as the strongest leader of that wing of the party. Just before the start of the convention, Clinton chose United States Senator Albert Gore from the candidate's neighbouring state of Tennessee. The Clinton-Gore team is the first all-southern major party presidential ticket in American political history. Its impact on the outcome in November will be interesting.

Meanwhile, adverse publicity reflecting on the character of the new Democratic Party leader seemed to diminish his capacity to challenge the Republicans in spite of his easy victories in the contests for the presidential nomination. The prospect of an unpopular incumbent President winning re-election without significant Democratic opposition gave rise to what appeared to be one of the most significant independent presidential candidates in American history. For about six months before the Democratic Convention in July, a Texas businessman seemed to be launching a serious presidential campaign outside the two party system.

From the beginning of the Republic private citizens have engaged in diplomatic and political activities at their own expense. The most famous example was the frontier militia leader, Andrew Jackson, who became a national hero by trying to solve border problems in the young nation. He became the seventh American president in 1829. Early in this century Henry Ford gained a large following by his efforts in support of American interests abroad. There was in the early 1920s a short-lived movement to elevate him to the American presidency. In recent years a Texas billionaire business leader, Ross Perot, has acquired fame by leading personal campaigns on behalf of hostages in the Middle East and missing military personnel in Southeast Asia. In addition to those initiatives, Perot has been a frequently quoted commentator on public affairs. He suggests generally simple solutions to complex problems in a manner appealing to a large segment of the American public. For over a decade his admirers have touted him for the presidency in spite of his alleged aversion to politics. John Jay Hooker, an eccentric three-time loser in Tennessee campaigns for governor and the United States Senate, arranged to place Perot before a national television audience early this year.

In February Perot announced his willingness to become an independent presidential candidate. There was an immediate grass-roots movement to circulate petitions to place his name on presidential ballots. In early May polls indicated that he had the support of about a third of the electorate. Time magazine has called him the |Billionaire Populist'. Given his enormous fortune, Perot was soon regarded by some American psephologists as a truly competitive presidential candidate, a real threat to the two-party domination of American presidential politics. By drawing votes away from the Republicans, he could inflict on their candidate the same electoral devastation caused by the Populists a hundred years ago.

Perot's life is one of the great American success stories of the post-World War II era. Suddenly abandoning plans to study law, the east Texas native entered the United States Naval Academy at age nineteen. While earning only mediocre grades, he nevertheless distinguished himself as an undergraduate leader. After only two years of naval service following graduation, however, he resorted to political influence to achieve an early release from what he priggishly called a |Godless organization' that had subjected him to |drunken tales of moral emptiness'. Perot's charges of corruption among his superiors at sea were later called |absolute, total hogwash' by his commanding officer. Senior naval officers at the time described young Perot as |emotionally maladjusted' and |too immature to be entrusted with the leadership responsibilities'.

Leaving the Navy in the 1950s at the dawn of the computer age, Perot carried with him knowledge and experience developed by contact with military electronics. |I had touched a computer,' he later said, |at a time when very few people had'. He settled in Dallas employed by IBM as a computer salesman. Almost immediately he was extraordinarily successful, soon earning more income than his corporate superiors. In 1962 at the age of 32 Perot left IBM to form a new corporation, Electronic Data Systems, or EDS, which launched a new venture in the business world called |outsourcing', the technique of processing a client's data far more efficiently than a company could do for itself. Again resorting to political influence with fellow Texans in the Lyndon Johnson administration, Perot gained for EDS contracts with the federal government to handle the massive records-keeping for the programmes of Johnson's |Great Society'. By the end of the Johnson presidency Perot was a billionaire. After twenty-two years, Perot sold EDS to General Motors for $2.55 billion.

Long before that transaction, Perot had acquired world fame because of his frequent involvement in controversies surrounding the Vietnam War and the Prisoners of War problem. He became antagonistic toward public officials of the 1980s perceived to be unco-operative in investigating rumours of American POWs being held in Southeast Asia. That was an emotional problem calculated to increase Perot's popularity among people susceptible to fantasy and conspiracy theories. The leader against whom Perot developed the greatest level of animosity seems to have been Vice-President George Bush.

Perot became obsessed with conspiracy theories which he conveyed to anyone who might help gather incriminating evidence against people suspected of wrongdoing. One of his contacts in the late 1980s was a young reporter for the Dallas Morning News, Joe Drape, who says none of Perot's tips ever |checked out'. In 1987 Drape attended a Dallas |Roast' for Perot in which the billionaire's admirers exchanged humorous comments about the guest of honour. One of the roasts was to the effect that Ross went out for a walk and he got hit by a speed boat'. Another was that |Ross can talk for two hours on any subject and four hours if he knows a little about it'.

Yet before either of the two established parties nominated their candidates, the Perot candidacy began to collapse. In fact, he had never officially announced his candidacy although he encouraged his supporters to set up Perot organizations in every state. He used his vast wealth to hire professional managers. Once he seemed on the verge of becoming a serious candidate, he was subjected to a barrage of media scrutiny. He was also having great difficulty in finding a running mate. On 16 July, the day that Governor Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination, Perot told a press conference in Dallas that he was dropping out of the race, thus ending the most serious challenge to two party politics in living memory. Perot claimed that he withdrew because he did not want to cause a Constitutional crisis. Perot's withdrawal was followed by a boost in the polls for the Democrat candidate.

The American Constitution assigns each state presidential electors equal in number to the size of its congressional delegation. That number varies from three in the smallest states to fifty-four in California. In most of the states the candidate winning a plurality of the popular votes in the November election receives all of the electoral votes. In all but three of the nation's fifty-one elections, one of the candidates has won a majority in the so-called electoral college and was thus declared the winner immediately following the popular selection of slates of electors in November. Thus the work of the electors becomes a mere formality in December when they meet in their respective state capital cities. They sign certificates that are forwarded to the president of the United States Senate who formally announces the winner in January even though the outcome has been known for two months.

If no candidate wins at least a bare majority of 270 electors, the United States House of Representatives is assigned the task of choosing the winner from among the top three candidates earlier determined by the electors. In that procedure the ballot is by states whose delegations range in size from one to fifty-two. A state's vote is determined by a majority vote in its delegation. In case of a tie vote among the Representatives of a delegation, that state's vote is not counted. Balloting must continue until one of the presidential contestants receives the vote of at least twenty-six states.

The last time a House election occurred was in 1824 when the plurality winner in the November election, Andrew Jackson, was defeated by John Quincy Adams who had won the second highest number of both popular and electoral votes. Charges of corruption adversely affected the new president's capacity to govern. In the years following that crisis, however, America developed two strong, permanent national parties whose candidates have remained dominant over all challengers. No candidate outside the two-party structure has come even close to threatening the American political establishment. Even the Populists of 1892 got only twenty-two electoral votes and nine per cent of the popular votes. The two major parties absorbed the Populists' ideas and their party soon faded. In spite of the problems of Bush and Clinton in Campaign '92, Ross Perot's withdrawal ensures that two-party politics remains dominant in America as it does in Britain.

[David N. Thomas is Professor of History at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia.]
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Title Annotation:analysis of the 1992 presidential elections
Author:Thomas, David N.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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