The backstory on this alternate version of presidential history
Imagining a Bill Clinton loss to George H. W. Bush in ‘92 reveals where Democratic party ideology went off the rails.
Two factors inspired me to imagine this alternative version of presidential history. The first was realizing, amid all the recent #MeToo-inspired criticism of Bill Clinton, that an essential part of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders’ beef with our current politics is rooted in the direction the Democratic Party took during the Clinton years.
The second was in rereading, after the recent death of Philip Roth, his mesmerizing 2004 novel The Plot Against America , which offers an alternate version of history. The novel finds Franklin Roosevelt losing his reelection bid in 1940 to aviation hero, Republican isolationist, and anti-Semitic Germanophile Charles Lindberg.
Roth’s novel jumps into the imagined history from the first page. He offers a lengthy post-script at the end of the novel, separating fact from fiction. In my piece, the reimagined history comes only in the last section, and I tried to include the necessary factual information at the front end. But I’ll offer some additional notes here.
I focused my piece on Bill Clinton’s domestic policy because that’s where the biggest contrast seems to lie between the Clinton presidency and what could likely have happened during a second George H.W. Bush term. The Clinton years saw some notable foreign policy achievements, particularly the Bosnian peace deal. But there was also an enormously consequential failing: far too much US policy investment in Boris Yeltsin. Clinton and Yeltsin got along famously, and that personal equation probably led the Clinton administration to see the untested Russian leader as far more committed to real democratic reform than he actually was. This, after all, was the same Yeltsin who left office with Russia as an effective (if ineffectual) oligarchy and Vladimir Putin as his hand-picked successor. Based on their actions during Yeltsin’s earliest days, Bush 41 and Secretary of State Jim Baker, I believe, would have been treaded more cautiously with Yeltsin (though, of course, that is unknowable).
Baker, who served as campaign manager for Bush’s reelection, has argued that the biggest factor in Clinton’s 1992 win was Ross Perot’s surprisingly strong third-party run, where the Texas businessman attracted nearly 20 percent of the vote. Bush agrees. The 41st president remains so bitter that when he was asked about Perot in the 2012 HBO documentary 41, he icily replied: “Think he cost me the election, and I don’t like him. Other than that, I have nothing to say.” Although some studies suggest that Perot pulled votes roughly evenly from both Clinton and Bush in the ’92 race, the evidence seems more persuasive that the Texas billionaire hurt the incumbent president — himself a former Texas businessman — much more than he hurt Clinton.
In my imagined history, Perot ends up sitting out of the ’92 race (resisting all the exhortations from CNN’s Larry King), only to throw his hat in the ring four years later. In reality, Perot ran in both elections, though he was much less of a factor in the ’96 race, capturing just 8 percent of the vote.
My alternate history pivots on the tense relationship between Bush and Newt Gingrich. The historians and experts I consulted were in agreement in believing that, if Bush had won reelection in 1992, there would have been no Gingrich-led Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994. It seems highly plausible that instead of Bill Clinton becoming the organizing focus of the Gingrich camp’s fury – even before his unforced error with the Lewinsky scandal — a second Bush term would have seen a punishing internal battle play out for the soul of the Republican Party.
And if Bush had won reelection in ’92, it also seems plausible that his oldest son would have continued to serve in his father’s administration during the second term, rather than running for governor of Texas in ’94. (The scene I describe about George W. Bush being asked to break it to John Sununu that he needed to resign, and Sununu leaving the meeting still believing that he had his job as chief of staff, is also entirely factual.) Even if George W. Bush had run for governor in ’94, his chances of winning would have been significantly diminished without a Gingrich-led Republican wave animating so many conservative voters around the country. Most tantalizing for critics of the Iraq War and all its debilitating and lingering damage: If Bush 41 had won reelection in ’92, it seems very doubtful there would have ever been a Bush 43 presidency, at least not one involving George W.