September 19th, 2020


The Calendar Says 2016, But We're Still Partying Like It's 1992

Bill Whalen

By Bill Whalen

Published April 22, 2016

The Calendar Says 2016, But We're Still Partying Like It's 1992

The prospect of a fall matchup between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump doesn’t lack for unknowns.

How will the nation react to the first female presidential nominee of a major party?

Or, for the first time since 1952, a Republican nominee who’s never held political office?

Will Americans sign on to four or more years of a Democratic dynasty that’s already been with us for a quarter of a century?

Could Trump take the GOP into heretofore off-limit corners of the electoral map, or will red states vanish should he front a Republican ticket?

The funny thing about Campaign 2016 is that for all the uncertainty, there’s also a good dose of familiarity. Thus begging the question: where were you in 1992?

Here are five ways how the national election of 24 years ago affects the present race.

It Gave Us The Clintons

1992 was, of course, Bill and Hillary’s coming-out party. And if Bubba doesn’t run that year? He quite possibly never makes it to the White House.

Remember: on the Democratic side, the ’92 race was first defined by the party luminaries who decided not to run — Lloyd Bentsen, Bill Bradley, Mario Cuomo, Richard Gephardt, Al Gore, Sam Nunn, Chuck Robb.

In an alternate universe in which Bush 41 earns re-election and 1996 becomes an open-seat contest, these Democrats and maybe more vie for the nomination. And Clinton? He likely gets bypassed for a fresher face.

But Clinton did prevail in 1992 and…

It Gave Us Policies That Now Haunt Hillary

Bill Clinton ran as “a different kind of Democrat.” Then again, what choice did he have? In the previous two elections, Democrats lost 93 of 100 states to Ronald Reagan. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

In his first term, Clinton made good on the slogan. He coaxed reluctant Democratic congressmen into voting for NAFTA. He cut a welfare-reform deal with Newt Gingrich. Clinton put his signature on 1994’s landmark crime bill and he signed the federal Defense of Marriage Act in the dead of night (Clinton said he had to do it to head off a constitutional amendment. Riiiiight.)

Two decades later, it’s those actions — especially the crime bill — that both Clintons now defensively justify (she, more awkwardly so). When Hillary talks up her friendship with Marian Wright Edelman, a longtime activist for America’s disadvantaged, she doesn’t mention that Peter Edelman, Marian’s husband and fellow activist, quit the Clinton Administration in protest over the welfare deal (here’s his explanation why).

How effective was Clinton at dragging his party back to the nation’s center? In 1998, Al Gore was a southern centrist running for president who at one time had opposed federal abortion funding while talking up school prayer. By 2000, Gore not only had invented the Internet but also reinvented himself as an FDR-style progressive, as did John Kerry in 2004 (unfortunately, Kerry a Grey Poupon kind of guy in the yellow-mustard world of national elections) and Barack Obama in 2008.

It Started The GOP’s Post-Reagan Journey

Bush-Quayle ’88, which carried 40 states, can be seen as an extension of the Reagan years. Yes, Reagan’s vice president employed the nuanced language of “kinder, gentler,” but tough campaign-trail talk of crime, defense and lower taxes was straight out of the Gipper’s playbook.

With Bush 41’s defeat in 1992 came the search not just for “the next Reagan,” but an updated version of the Republicans’ governing philosophy. It might have been George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” had not that presidency been rerouted by the war on terror. After Bush came John McCain and Mitt Romney. Both were hybrid candidates, adopting more conservative personas in their second presidential efforts.

In 2016, the field of 17 Republican hopefuls reflected various threads of GOP thought: strict conservatism (Ted Cruz), a more pragmatic drift to the center (John Kasich); libertarianism (Rand Paul); rejection of the political class (Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina). No definitive “heir to Reagan” in this bunch.

Perhaps the debate doesn’t begin until 1996 had the elder Bush been reelected. Meanwhile, the Republican journey through the post-Reagan wilderness soon will celebrate a silver anniversary.

It Gave Us Bernie

Well, not exactly a Vermont-based democratic socialist, but a California-bred Democrat with enough changes in political personality that, were he to be elected president, his Secret Service name would be Sybil.

Bernie Sanders, meet Jerry Brown.

Specifically, the 1992 version of Jerry Brown — the one who competed against Clinton with mixed success (he took five states and a fifth of the primary vote) all the while bemoaning “a growing concentration of wealth” and both Clintons’ shady relationship with money (if you think Bernie and Hillary has been animated, check out these exchanges below from back in the day).

Brown set up a 1-800 hotline for small-dollar donations, not unlike Bernie seeking $27 a pop via the Web. One difference: after this election, Bernie probably gets a gig hosting Saturday Night Live and a taste of capitalism (book deal). Jerry got a second shot at running California.

It Gave Us The Donald

Not one man, but the combined anti-establishment messages of Patrick Buchanan and Ross Perot and their assaults on free trade, social drift and the GOP ruling class.

One major difference: Buchanan, a writer who frequented cable television, was nowhere near Trump as an established media presence, nor as good as Trump as creating distractions and controlling the campaign’s narrative. Perot was far more erratic as a campaigner and strategist.

And, back in 1992, there was no social media. Insults came achingly slow in the form of attack faxes and press releases. Those are primitive tools compared to today’s done-in-a-flash tweets and texts.

The list continues of 1992’s lasting effects goes on. The election gave us Mary Matalin and James Carville as the new power couple of punditry. Without the election and Bill Clinton’s victory, George Stephanopoulos likely isn’t a fixture on ABC. Fleetwood Mac gets a new lease on life.

In a second Bush 41 term, there probably isn’t a Republican takeover of Congress (in retrospect, maybe not such a bad thing). Bill Kristol doesn’t lose his Job as Dan Quayle’s chief of staff; perhaps there’s never a Weekly Standard.

Join us in another 24 years, in Campaign 2040, to discuss what 2016 left behind — other than a trove of Donald Trump insults and an oddball senator who looked far too much like Larry David.

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Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he studies and writes on current events and political trends. In citing Whalen as one of its "top-ten" political reporters, The 1992 Media Guide said of his work: "The New York Times could trade six of its political writers for Whalen and still get a bargain." During those years, Whalen also appeared frequently on C-SPAN, National Public Radio, and CNBC.