Harper Can Learn From Bush 41
I recently finished reading 41: A Portrait of My Father by George W. Bush. It was plainly written and full of folksy, anecdotal stories and impressions that reveal the very human side of America’s 41st President.
There are many insights offered by the book, but I found one time frame particularly interesting. The run-up to the 1992 election and the behind-the-scenes observations about where it all went wrong for George H. W. Bush’s second term were very insightful.
This October, Stephen Harper will be running for his second majority term, and in a lot of ways he is taking the same steps that Bush took in ‘91/’92. Below are 4 things that Harper can learn from George H. W. Bush’s failed election bid.
#1. Split the vote.
...when asked about Perot in a documentary that aired in 2012, Dad said, “I think he cost me to election and I don’t like him.”
In 1992, quirky and outspoken third party candidate, Ross Perot, ran for office as an independent candidate. There are usually fringe candidates running in every election, but what made Ross Perot different came in the form of billions of dollars of his own making. He used massive amounts of his own cash to tap into disgruntled grassroots conservative voters. His policies focused on balanced budgets, opposition to free-trade and an isolationist foreign policy. He attracted the same type of Ron Paul voters and Tea Party activists that we see today.
There are many Democrats that like to think Bill Clinton was a slam-dunk for the ‘92 victory and in 41, George W. Bush makes an assessment that places the “generational change” Bill Clinton represented as the main factor. However, the type of economic populism, trade protection, and isolationist nationalism that Perot stood for resonates with people who lean more heavily to the right side of the political spectrum. It’s impossible to determine exactly how the election would have played out had Perot not run, but many people believe that Perot simply split the vote and allowed Bill Clinton an accidental win.
George W. Bush recounts how the same experience happened during his campaign in 2000, only in reverse. Ralph Nader formally aligned with the Green Party and as a result he significantly boosted his share of the vote in 2000 election. The result of the 2000 election boiled down to a handful of ballots in Florida and Bush won the election. (Yes...he won...it was not “stolen” despite left-wing conspiracy theories to the contrary.)
What does this mean for Harper?
Canada’s three party system favours the Conservative Party, so long as the Conservative Party maintains the base. Don’t allow any contenders to rise from the right of the political spectrum. If any movement or activity begins...race toward it. Embrace and absorb it and the party will remain strong. This may alienate some moderate voters, but in a three party system the aim is for 35% of the popular vote...not 51%. Turn out the base and maintain as big a tent as is possible, but only to a point. Continue to exploit divisions on the left and force the Liberals to fracture as they try to squeeze down the mushy middle. Inspiring no one, by appealing everyone is a recipe for failure.
#2. Promise tax cuts...and deliver.
“Read my lips...no new taxes!” - George H. W. Bush, 1988
The above line is one of Bush’s most quotable quotes. The Republican base loved it and believed it. In 41, George W. Bush goes to some lengths to explain where it all went wrong. The quick version is that Congress and the Senate were both controlled by Democrats and the negotiating process required compromise for the sake of progress. Nevertheless, ordinary people understood one thing...broken promise.
In a prosperous society, lowering taxes is always an easy and popular sell. Following through with it can be difficult, especially if you are positioning yourself as a fiscally conservative budget balancer. George H. W. Bush needed to fight harder for this issue and the aftermath proves how essential it is to keep the base happy and stand tall with fulfilled commitments.
#3. Foreign policy isn’t number one.
George H. W. Bush had an approval rating of 89% after winning the Gulf War in early 1991. The world was in transition during this era as the Soviet Union was collapsing, eastern Europe was gaining liberty, and China had just suffered through the Tiananmen square massacre. Bush had to deal with these dynamic international scene and he did so with diplomatic skill and finesse.
People don’t wake up in the morning and think about the politics of China, or civil tension in Europe. They think about their own families and their own jobs. In 1992, people were thinking a lot about their own families and jobs. The recession that lasted 8 months from July 1990 to March of 1991, had lingering effects that lasted right up until the election. The unemployment rate continued to rise and the success of the Gulf War was quickly forgotten. People cared about jobs and the way of life a job provides. Domestic issues were front and centre by 1992 and George H. W. Bush was seen as a 1980’s man dealing with foreign threats that no longer mattered.
People care mostly about themselves. People live in Canada day-to-day and that’s the playing field for their vote. Inflation, crime, local issues with a national tinge...people are voting for their lives, not a foreigner’s life. The loss of a job is far more important to them than the loss of a democracy half the world away.
#4. Don’t lose touch with common people.
During the debates in 1992, Bush answered an audience member question about the national debt and the economy with contempt and defense. Bill Clinton answered it with empathy and agenda. You can watch the clip here.
The general impression of Bush near the end of the election was one of elitism. He was too old and too out of touch with the happenings on the ground. He was a man who had become Vice-President as a millionaire in 1981 and was running for a second term at the age of 68. How could mainstream America relate to the guy anymore? How could he relate to them?
During a campaign stop, Bush entered a grocery store and was fascinated to witness an automatic scanner. You can see the clip here. The problem with this was that grocery scanners were introduced in 1974. By the 1980’s they were ubiquitous. During the 1992 election campaign, Bush was looking at them like they were newly arrived from outer-space. The message was clear...Bush was not like you and me.
None of this truly matters that much anyway, but in a democracy optics matter and people want leaders that have the common touch. Bush lost the common touch due to shouldering the responsibilities of leading the free world. It was an honest drift away over the course of many years, but it set the stage for a newcomer to steal power.
Conclusion: George H. W. Bush is a good template for Stephen Harper. Bush did a great job and still has much respect today, but a few crucial problems left unsolved caused him to lose in 1992. After ten years in power, Harper needs to cautiously reinvent himself and take into account the new landscape of Canadian politics.
If not, he too, could face the same fate as George H. W. Bush.