President George H. W. Bush, who passed away last week, achieved a number of important accomplishments in public life: He signed into law both the Americans With Disabilities Act and Clean Air Act, and negotiated for the North American Free Trade Agreement. But his political career is also marked by two bizarre phenomena: On the one hand, he is the only presidential candidate in the post-war era to secure a third term in office for his party (in 1988); on the other, he's one of only two elected presidents of that era to be denied a second term (in the 1992 election). Put simply: He won an election that was hard to win, and he lost one that was hard to lose. How does this happen? And to the same guy?
To understand the 1988 election, it's important to turn to Richard Ben Cramer's outstanding book, What it Takes. As Cramer notes, that was a fascinating election, which included a number of high-profile candidates—Al Gore, Bob Dole, Dick Gephardt, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, and Bush—who remained important national figures for many years, and are still household names today. In the end, Bush managed to achieve what many other skilled politicians, from Gore to John McCain to Hillary Clinton, couldn't: Win a third term for his party.
Yet it's worth noting that the fundamentals were on Bush's side that year. Despite the stock market crash of 1987, the economy was expanding at a strong clip of 4 percent in late 1987 and most of 1988. Indeed, it was the fourth-best economy in the lead-up to a presidential election of the post-war era. That's likely the most important, if least discussed, aspect of that election. Yes, there were other notable features of the election, including the GOP's race-baiting advertising strategy and Dukakis' reluctance to answer with his own negative messaging, that perhaps helped Bush, but those advantages may have been canceled out by voters' wariness of granting a party a third term in office. In the end, it came down to the economy.
The economic story is more complicated and interesting in 1992. In terms of simple economic growth, the year right before that election looks pretty solid, with a growth rate in real disposable income of around 3 percent. But that wasn't the whole story. The nation was just beginning to recover from a brief but nasty recession. Although the economy had begun expanding by the spring of 1991, job growth was exceptionally slow, and the unemployment rate was still at 8 percent in the summer of 1992.
As political scientist Lynn Vavreck has noted, Clinton's 1992 campaign was careful to center that election around the lingering unemployment figures. His campaign was relentless in turning every campaign issue into a discussion of "the economy, stupid." Note this ad which flips a criticism of Clinton's tax plans into a message about Bush's failed economy. Or this debate exchange, in which Clinton takes a question about Bush being out of touch and turns it into an attack on the weak economic growth.
There was also, as political scientist Marc Hetherington has found, an unusual disconnect in 1992 between the economy's behavior and how the media covered it. (Part of this coverage was likely driven by the Clinton campaign's skilled messaging.) That coverage may have shaped voters' perceptions of the economy, which caused Bush to substantially underperform in the November election. He became the only Republican president since Herbert Hoover to be denied a second term in office.
Since 1992, the American political system has entered into a pattern of striking regularity in presidential elections. Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama each served for two full terms. The last time that happened in three successive presidencies was Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. Lest we become too myopic and convince ourselves that this is simply the way presidential elections work, it's helpful to think back to George H.W. Bush, the last president to deviate from this pattern.