George H.W. Bush chose the relatively young and inexperienced Indiana Republican, Dan Quayle as his running mate to appeal to young Americans. Senator McCain apparently found him attractive, saying, “I can’t believe a guy that handsome wouldn’t have some impact.” Quayle’s grandfather was wealthy publishing magnate, Eugene Pulliam who owned, among other things, the Indianapolis Star and the Arizona Republic. Quayle went to De Pauw and IU Law School. During Vietnam, he served in the national guard. Two years after graduating law school, Quayle ran for and was elected to Congress. In 1980, he upended Birch Bayh in a race for the United States Senate.
During the 1988 Presidential campaign, Quayle tried to battle his reputation as inexperienced by comparing himself to John F. Kennedy who had served only two more years in Congress when he ran for President. Bentsen got off the line of the campaign when he said, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
At the 1988 convention, Bush gave his “thousand points of light” speech, endorsing the Pledge of Allegiance, government prayer in schools, capital punishment, gun rights, and anti-abortion. The “thousand points” spoke to his idea that poverty and social problems should be dealt with through volunteerism rather than government mandate. Bush made the famous declaration, “Read my lips, no new taxes!” Bush ran a tough campaign and was able to overcome initial deficits in the polls and paint Dukakis as soft on crime. He ultimately beat Dukakis by 8% and took 426 electoral votes. For my part, I was 17 years old and volunteered for the Bush/Quayle campaign, calling people to get them out to the polls and, as I recall, running supplies from one part of Wayne County. I remember attending a Republican Party election-results party with my long-time friend Tom in downtown Richmond and celebrating the victory. Tom and I can now be found on social media arguing vociferously against a Trump Presidency. (As I write this, it’s the Sunday before election day. Holding my breath!) The party of Reagan has changed quite a bit over the last 28 years.
During Bush’s Presidency, the communist world was falling apart. The Berlin Wall came down in the fall of 1989, and the Soviet Union would formally cease to exist by January 1992. In 1989, Bush ordered military operations that resulted in the removal of Panamanian strongman, Manuel Noriega. In 1990, responding to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Bush sought and received authorization for the use of force. The attack began in January 1991 and culminated in a ground invasion in February which was highly successful from the U.S. point of view. Bush was sometimes criticized for not pursuing Iraqi forces to Baghdad and removing Saddam Hussein from power. “Bush explained that he did not give the order to overthrow the Iraqi government because it would have “incurred incalculable human and political costs…. We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq.””
Bush attempted to deal with the deficit that had tripled during the Reagan presidency. His fellow Republicans would not accept his proposal to raise taxes and cut spending to reduce the deficit by $500 billion over five years, so Bush went along with a Democratic proposal that raised spending and taxes. This reduced his popularity (which at one point hit almost 90%), and many Republicans were stung by the failure to honor his pledge of “no new taxes.” Among other things, Bush also signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and a re-authorization of the Clean Air Act. He appointed David Souter to the Supreme Court as well as the more contentious choice of Clarence Thomas.
A short term recession and higher unemployment hit at an inopportune time for his re-election prospects. When he ran for re-election, he faced an insurgent primary challenge from his right in the form of Pat Buchanan who did surprisingly well in New Hampshire with 35% of the vote. Louisiana Klansman, David Duke, managed 120,000 votes in the primary. (By contrast, Bush won 9.2 million.) The Buchanan/Duke insurgency revealed the seeds (or maybe continued presence, considering the longevity of the Birchers) of a nativist unrest in the Republican Party. In the general election, his prospects were further complicated by the candidacy of billionaire Ross Perot. Perot tapped into citizens’ concerns about the deficit and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He led the major party candidates in the polls in June of 1992 but dropped out in July and then re-entered, claiming that he had dropped out due to Republican operatives attempting to disrupt his daughter’s wedding. That severely undermined his credibility and, while his support remained substantial, he did not recover the lead.