When: Aug. 17-20, 1992
Nominee: President George H.W. Bush
It had been a weird election year, the strangest in memory.
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George H.W. Bush occupied the White House and wanted a second term. Two years before the election he was one of the most popular presidents in American history, the commander in chief who led the nation into a brief but successful war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein. His re-election seemed automatic.
But Bush’s poll numbers had slumped by 1992, and badly. A wicked recession had swept the country, throwing tens of thousands out of work. He had broken his “read my lips” promise of 1988 (made in a convention speech) and agreed to a budget that raised some taxes.
More broadly, he seemed out of touch from common concerns — he apparently didn’t know the price of a gallon of milk, for example. And he had angered his party’s right wing, whose grievances were fed by the growing influence of conservative talk radio.
Pat Buchanan stepped into the gap. The former editorial and speech writer mounted a spirited campaign in New Hampshire and other states, coming close to Bush but rarely beating him. The message, though, seemed clear: The incumbent was vulnerable.
The Democrats weren’t in any better shape. Their nominee, Bill Clinton, had faced serious allegations of scandal. His own primary battles had left his campaign battered and broke. For the first time the nation’s voters heard the term “bimbo eruptions.”
Some thought Texas businessman Ross Perot was the answer. Perot wanted to run beneath the banner of the Reform Party, a group worried about federal spending and the deficit. He got an eager hearing from voters disgusted with their major-party choices — he led all potential candidates in a June poll.
But voters turned sour on Perot too. His poll numbers slipped, and in July, just days before the major parties’ conventions, he dropped from the race. For the time being.
So yes, it had been a weird year by the time the GOP gathered for their convention in Bush’s hometown, Houston. It was about to turn even more strange.
The first-night proceedings climaxed with a moment of great poignance: Former president Ronald Reagan gave his last speech. His voice gathered strength and a twinkle came to his eye as he talked about his story. The delegates grew silent.
“May every dawn be a great new beginning for America,” he said, as eyes watered. “And every evening bring us closer to that shining city upon a hill.”
The other speech that night was not so gentle.
Buchanan had earned a prime-time speaking slot, some Republicans thought, and he was ready to use it. In thundering prose he warned delegates of a “culture war” waged by Democrats and Clinton.
He called Clinton a draft dodger (Buchanan himself had not served in the military during the Vietnam War). He decried “radical feminism.” He criticized abortion. He called for prayer in schools and hammered “the raw sewage of pornography that pollutes our popular culture.”
It was war, Buchanan said.
“There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America,” he insisted. “It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton and (Hillary) Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side.”
The heated rhetoric was no surprise to Buchanan’s readers, but it may have shocked millions of voters watching at home. And he wasn’t alone: Vice President Dan Quayle picked up the theme just a few days later. So did Quayle’s wife, Marilyn.
“The gap between us and our opponents is a cultural divide,” Vice President Quayle said. “It is not just a difference between conservative and liberal, it is a difference between fighting for what is right and refusing to see what is wrong.”
Conservatives have argued the speeches actually helped Bush and would have provided a bigger polling boost had he emphasized cultural issues that fall. Today, Buchanan’s words seem less shocking — similar rhetoric can be found on conservative websites any day of the week.
But most political pros learned a different lesson that night: Conventions can get too hot, exciting delegates but disappointing a broader, less ideological audience watching on television.
“Some of Bush’s handlers conceded afterward that they had let the brimstone quotient get out of hand,” a quintet of Newsweek reporters later wrote in “Quest for the Presidency 1992,” their book on the race. “The (polling) bounce he got from four nights’ exposure was small and fleeting.”
Wrote Florida political columnist Philip Gailey years later: “The Houston convention was a political disaster for George H.W. Bush.”
Perot returned to the race and siphoned some votes away from the Republican ticket. The incumbent lost to Clinton, and Democrats returned to the White House for the first time in more than a decade.