George H. W. Bush turned 88 yesterday, and the milestone got me thinking: is he the best president not to win reelection?
Bush, as most of you know, served one term before losing in 1992 to Bill Clinton in a three-way race that also involved Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot. Bush received only 38% of the vote – less than any incumbent since Taft (who also lost in a three-way race). It was a loss that, by his own admission, hit him very hard. As he told his granddaughter Jenna in this Today show interview, it was a “terrible, awful feeling” to lose. “I really wanted to win and worked hard,” Bush said. “Later on, people said, ‘Well, he didn’t really care,’ which is crazy. I worked my heart out.”
His defeat was caused in large part by the public perception that although the economy was coming out of a recession, economic growth was more sluggish than it actually was. In addition, after 12 years of Republican control of the White House, there was growing sentiment that it was time for a partisan change. Bush was also painted by Clinton as out of touch (many will remember his evident bafflement over seeing a grocery checkout scanner), and castigated by some conservatives for breaking his “no new taxes” pledge. Despite this, there is evidence suggesting that had Bush begun campaigning earlier and more effectively in 1992 (he installed Secretary of State James Baker as campaign manager too late to overcome Clinton’s early polling lead), he might have won reelection.
Bush’s most publicized successes as President came in foreign policy. In an almost bloodless campaign, he authorized the use of military force to remove Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega from power. And when in 1990 Saddam Hussein annexed Kuwait as a possible prelude to invading Saudi Arabia, rather than fulfilling Margaret Thatcher’s fears that he might “go wobbly”, Bush instead put together a domestic and international political and military coalition that drove Hussein out of Kuwait in less than a month of combat and with a minimal loss of American lives. (We forget just how close was the vote in Congress giving Bush authority to use military force against Hussein; the resolution passed the Senate by a scant 5 votes, 52-47. This was a far closer vote than what Bush’s son received when he sought congressional approval to go to war in Iraq.) Most notably, when Iraq’s military forces were routed and Hussein most vulnerable, Bush chose to halt the military carnage rather than pursue regime change. His decision not to remove Hussein from power was heavily criticized at the time, and for years after, but today, as the violence continues in post-invasion Iraq, many now laud Bush’s prudence and foresight.
Bush also presided with deceptive ease over the end of the Cold War; we now view German reunification as the natural result of the collapse of East Germany, but had Bush overplayed his hand, he could easily have undercut Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s political support back home and triggered a backlash among European nations to the specter of a unified Germany. Similarly, when the Soviet Union subsequently dissolved in 1991, Bush again confronted a potentially volatile period as Eastern bloc nations, freed from the yoke of Soviet dominance, struggled to remake themselves as democracies. If Bush’s leadership during this time lacked Reagan’s inspirational flourishes, he more than compensated by exercising a steady, if understated, diplomatic hand. He recognized, despite pressure from critics to more actively intervene in the restructuring of Eastern Europe, that leadership sometimes means doing less, not more.
Bush’s political downfall, however, was rooted in domestic affairs, particularly the economy, which slid into a recession on his watch. As with all modern presidents, he was held accountable for the state of the economy although he lacked many tools to influence it. Indeed, one of his most courageous but politically disastrous acts was to negotiate, in the face of growing budget deficit, a budget deal with Democrats in Congress that included additional revenue – thus breaking his famous “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge that was a cornerstone of his 1988 campaign. For that act of treason he was pilloried by the Gingrich-wing of the Republican Party while receiving scant credit from liberals. Sensing Bush’s political vulnerability, social conservative Pat Buchanan, touting his pitchfork brigade, unsuccessfully challenged the sitting President for the Republican nomination. That was an early indication that Bush was in electoral trouble. With hindsight, of course, the Bush tax hike served as a downpayment that contributed to the budget surplus that was briefly enjoyed during Clinton’s last term.
Since leaving the White House Bush has largely stayed out of the limelight, except for his occasional leap from airplanes (he is promising at least one more jump on his 90th birthday). Here he is jumping on his 85th birthday.
Rather than actively engage in national politics, he has limited his public involvement to bipartisan goodwill missions. Notably, he kept a very low profile during his son’s eight years as president. Rather than engaging in national politics, he spends much of his time on the water at Kennebunkport, Maine, and enjoying his grandchildren. He did recently attend the unveiling of his son’s portrait at the White House.
So, is he the best president not to win reelection? By my count, there have been at least 11 polls ranking the presidents since Bush left office. His aggregate place in the rankings is 21st (standard deviation 3.2), with his highest ranking 18th (twice) and one poll placing him as low as 31st. Typically he is clustered in a pack that includes Taft, Martin Van Buren and the man who defeated him, Bill Clinton. I’ve written previously about the unreliability of these rankings, but there does not seem to be any evidence that Bush’s historical standing will change appreciably in the foreseeable future – his presidency, rightly or not, is deemed average. Interestingly, in the aggregate presidential rankings, only the two Adamses – John and his son John Quincy – rank ahead of Bush among those presidents who sought reelection but were defeated. Both Adamses may benefit historically due to their accomplishments outside the presidential office – an advantage Bush does not enjoy.
In his interview with his granddaughter (see below), Bush read from a letter he wrote that addressed, in part, the process of aging. He wrote: “As the summers finish out, and the seas get a little higher, winds a little colder, I’ll be making some notes, writing it down lest I forget so I can add to the report on getting older. Who knows, maybe they will come out with a new drug that makes legs bend easier, joints hurt less, drives go farther, memory come roaring back and all fears about falling off fishing rafts go away. Remember the old song, ‘I’ll be there ready when you are’? Well, I’ll be there, ready when you are, because there’s so much excitement ahead, so many grandkids to watch grow. If you need me, I’m here. Devotedly, Dad.”
Here he is reading that letter and talking about his presidency more generally. (The exchange in this video between Jenna and Bush regarding “the Bieb” is priceless.)
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George H. W. Bush. Possible the best president we never reelected – and a pretty good grandfather too.
Here’s to you, Poppy. May you enjoy many more birthdays (and sky dives) to come!
P.S. For a discussion of his son’s rankings, see my analysis here.