The war that made Bill Clinton president

Remember when every major Democrat in America was scared to run against George H.W. Bush?

Published January 23, 2011 4:01PM (EST)

George H.W. Bush prepares to give his Jan. 16, 1991, Oval Office speech announcing the beginning of military action in Iraq (left); and Bill Clinton on the campaign trail in 1992.
George H.W. Bush prepares to give his Jan. 16, 1991, Oval Office speech announcing the beginning of military action in Iraq (left); and Bill Clinton on the campaign trail in 1992.

The Gulf War that began 20 years ago this past week ended with America's political class in nearly universal agreement on one point: The Democrats were screwed in 1992.

In the months before the war, as he'd dispatched hundreds of thousands of troops to the Persian Gulf in response to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, there had been widespread fear among Americans that President George H.W. Bush was leading them into another Vietnam. But as wars go, Operation Desert Storm proved surprisingly tidy: The verdict was quick and decisive and American casualties were low. It was everything Vietnam hadn't been, and when Bush declared a cease-fire on Feb. 28, a months-long national celebration ensued, complete with parades, prime-time television specials -- and, of course, soaring popularity for the commander in chief, whose leadership was hailed by even his harshest critics.

It was in this climate that Bush, his approval ratings edging over 90 percent in some polls, was branded a shoo-in for reelection in '92. Sure, he'd gone back on his "no new taxes" pledge the year before, and yes, the economy was clearly in recession, but none of this mattered anymore: Even Harry Truman after the Japanese surrender hadn't enjoyed Bush's standing with his fellow countrymen, and it was simply inconceivable that they might turn around and give him the boot 20 months later -- especially when almost every Democrat being mentioned as a potential candidate had been against the war. One poll matched Bush against the man widely considered the Democrats' best bet for '92, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, in a trial heat: Bush came out on top ... by 62 points.

"Large problems and small bedevil the Democrats," the Washington Post's Mary McGrory wrote in mid-March. "They are fairly resigned to the idea that the 1992 presidential election was decided during Operation Desert Storm, and they realize they may not get the sand out of their shoes until Thanksgiving, if then."

There was one Democrat, though, who was interested in running for president for whom all of this was good news -- very good news. Forty-five-year-old Bill Clinton had just been reelected the previous fall to his fifth term as Arkansas' governor. But his barely concealed national ambitions -- he'd walked to the starting line for the 1988 presidential race before backing out and citing family concerns -- had been a liability in that campaign, and Clinton had responded by promising Arkansans not to seek the White House if they returned him to the statehouse. By the final days of the race, when it was clear he'd survive, Clinton was already looking for a way to wiggle out of that commitment, but it would be a process. He needed time.

The Gulf War gave him plenty of it. In the previous presidential campaign cycle, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson, Richard Gephardt, Joe Biden and Bruce Babbitt had all been essentially running full-fledged presidential campaigns by the spring of 1987. But in the spring of 1991, about the only thing to be heard on the Democratic side was crickets. The party's brightest stars all made it clear that they either weren't running in '92, or were in no hurry to decide. They were all intimidated by Bush's imposing poll numbers, and many of them also wondered if their opposition to what had turned into an immensely popular war would render them unelectable.

The few Democrats who did step forward only served to underscore the perception that their party would cede reelection to the incumbent. Paul Tsongas, a dry-humored one-term senator who had left office in 1985 after being diagnosed with lymphoma, announced his plans to run in April. Three years after the Dukakis debacle, Democrats groaned: Just what we need -- another Greek from Massachusetts. He was joined by L. Douglas Wilder, who had been elected governor of Virginia less than two years earlier. As an African-American, Wilder's candidacy was potentially historic, but his limited experience, conservative views, low name recognition and icy relationship with civil rights leaders prompted many to write him off. Besides Tsongas and Wilder, the only other Democrats exploring the race were George McGovern, most famous for losing 49 states to Richard Nixon in 1972, and John Silber, a volcanic cultural conservative who had just lost a bid for governor of Massachusetts. Oh, and Eugene McCarthy also said he was running -- again.

Thus, there was room for Clinton to ease his way into the national conversation -- to slowly acclimate Arkansans to the idea that he'd go back on his pledge, the better to avoid an embarrassing home state backlash when he finally did jump in. The calculations that were keeping so many big-name Democrats away from the presidential race didn't really apply to Clinton.

First, he wouldn't be saddled with their Gulf War baggage. In Little Rock during the months leading up to Desert Storm, he'd ducked questions about it, finally telling a reporter on the eve of the war that he agreed with the arguments against it but probably would have voted for it. When it became clear that the war was a political winner, Clinton simplified that statement: He'd been for the war before the beginning. If it wasn't technically true, well, it wasn't technically untrue either.

That Clinton wasn't a well-known national figure and that he was hardly considered a star in the party also meant that expectations would be low. He could afford to run in '92, fare better than expected, and emerge well-positioned for 1996. For big fish like Mario Cuomo, Bill Bradley and Jay Rockefeller this wasn't the case. If they didn't win the nomination, their candidacies would be considered disasters, given their stature; and even if they did, all it would give them would be the opportunity to be routed by Bush in the fall, or so everyone assumed.

This logic was especially anguishing for the man who posed the most immediate threat to Clinton's prospects: a Tennessee senator who was then commonly known as Albert Gore.

Gore had already run a "better than expected" presidential campaign four years earlier when, at the age of 39, he'd been enticed into the race by some well-heeled donors and the dearth of a major Southern candidate. Gore had run as a conservative Democrat with hawkish tendencies, skipping the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary and devoting all of his early attention on the South, which had scheduled all of its primaries for the same day -- Super Tuesday! -- in order to maximize the region's impact. Super Tuesday 1988 had been good to Gore, but not good enough, and his campaign fizzled out when the race returned to the North. But the campaign marked him as a future contender.

And in the wake of the Gulf War, his stock soared. He had been one of only 11 Democrats in the Senate to vote for it, meaning he could potentially neutralize the issue in a race against Bush. The only other Democratic senator in the '92 mix who could make this claim was Georgia's Sam Nunn, but he had already made it clear he wasn't running. The calls for Gore to run grew louder.

A Gore candidacy would erode, perhaps fatally, the regional, ideological and financial base that a Clinton candidacy would depend on. Clinton, like Gore, had cultivated a moderate image designed to appeal to Democrats who believed their party couldn't, in the wake of Dukakis and Mondale, nominate another Northern liberal. But Gore had the upper hand because he'd run before -- a fact that also worked in Clinton's favor, because Gore knew that if he ran again in '92 and lost, he wouldn't be the up-and-comer that he'd been after '88; he'd just be a loser.

As Gore struggled to make up his mind, Clinton began making the national rounds at party events and policy conferences. He and Gore both addressed a Democratic Leadership Council meeting in Cleveland. Gore's address landed with a thud -- he put "his nose in the text of an almost themeless speech" and delivered it in a "wooden" manner, the Washington Post declared. But Clinton's performance was a revelation. Said one DLC member from Massachusetts: "That's a guy who could do well in New England." The same scene played out at the Louisiana Democratic convention in June. Finally, on Aug. 21, Gore called a press conference to announce that he wouldn’t be a candidate. He insisted that he wasn't intimidated by Bush, or scared of being branded a two-time loser, and framed his decision as a family one (his son had been involved in a serious car accident in 1989). "I would like to be president," Gore said, "but I am also a father."

And like that, Clinton's path to a viable candidacy was clear. With Gore out and Nunn still a "no," he'd have the South to himself. And while Bush's approval numbers were slowly returning to earth, they were still high enough to give A-list Democrats pause. In the weeks leading up to Gore's announcement, Gephardt and Rockefeller had also ruled themselves out. Bradley, still spooked by his shockingly narrow reelection margin in New Jersey the previous year, wasn't touching the race. Nor was Cuomo doing anything. It was nearly Labor Day and a bizarre reality was dawning: Every heavyweight in the Democratic Party would be sitting out the '92 presidential race. Instead, joining Tsongas and Wilder would be Tom Harkin, a populist senator from Iowa; Bob Kerrey, a decorated Vietnam veteran who had been elected to the Senate in 1988; and Jerry Brown, the former California governor who had been preparing for a comeback Senate bid in the summer of '91, only to shift gears and throw himself into the presidential race when he realized how feeble the Democratic field was. 

Oh, and Bill Clinton. Within days of Gore's decision, he signed on Robert Farmer, who had been Dukakis' top money man in '88, and made it clear that this time -- unlike in '88 -- he wouldn't be walking away from the starting line because of family issues. "They've both made it very clear to me that if I want to do it, that they're more than ready to get after it," Clinton said of his wife and daughter. Formal announcement was set for Oct. 3 in Little Rock. With no 800-pound gorillas in the race, Clinton would no longer be running to make a good impression for the future. The nomination was there for the taking.

As the fall progressed, Clinton continued to dazzle party leaders and regulars. At a meeting of state party chairs in Chicago, he was accused by several DLC-phobic chairmen of being too conservative to represent their party on the national stage. Clinton kept his cool and asked them to look at his record in Arkansas when it came to funding education, infrastructure and social programs. "These people call me a Republican," he said of his critics, "because I want to change and push the party into the future, not pull it to the right or the left." Just like in Cleveland and just like in Louisiana, the verdict of attendees was overwhelming: Clinton had won the day.

Meanwhile, the rest of the field failed to stir much excitement. Kerrey seemed to jump from theme to theme, struggling to communicate a rationale for his candidacy. Harkin, with his blunt us-versus-them rhetoric, struck many as too strident and one-note. Tsongas' embrace of Wall Street and calls for economic self-sacrifice alienated the party's traditional coalition. Brown was considered a has-been, and Wilder a non-starter. By the end of the fall, a survey of superdelegates -- the elected officials and party leaders given automatic delegate status at the national convention -- found Clinton far outpacing his competition. The Arkansas governor who just a year earlier had sworn off a presidential candidacy was fast emerging as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. And with the economy still struggling and Bush's ratings still dropping -- by the end of October, his approval rating was down to 55 percent in one survey -- that nomination was actually beginning to look ... valuable.

Maybe it shouldn't have been surprising, then, that at what was supposed to be a routine meeting of his finance committee in the middle of October, Cuomo declared that he was thinking about entering the race after all. It was hardly too late for him. Clinton had been impressive, but party elites still considered the Democratic field unimpressive. That same superdelegate survey also found "uncommitted" winning more support than Clinton. And Cuomo wasn't just a heavyweight Democrat; he was the heavyweight Democrat -- a mesmerizing orator who had turned into an overnight sensation after his keynote address to the 1984 Democratic convention. In earlier times, that Cuomo speech would have sparked a stampede to nominate; as it was, it simply certified him as the consensus Dream Candidate of Democrats nationwide. With Bush suddenly looking vulnerable, Cuomo's unexpected late interest was greeted with euphoria by the party establishment. At just the right moment, it seemed, the white knight had arrived.

Cuomo made no immediate moves. He had important business to attend to in Albany, he said. But his presence was immediately felt. A poll in New Hampshire showed him leading the Democratic field with 30 percent. Tsongas, powered by his next-door neighbor status, was second with 10 percent. Clinton was all the way back at 5 percent. In mid-November, rumors spread that Cuomo would use his monthly "Ask the Governor" radio call-in show, the same venue in which he'd announced his decision not to seek the presidency in 1988, to reveal his plans. But he remained tight-lipped and the speculation only intensified. Clinton and his fellow candidates grew frustrated at the impact Cuomo's dance was having on their fundraising and media visibility, but there was nothing they could do.

The unofficial deadline for Cuomo was Friday, Dec. 20, the filing deadline for the New Hampshire primary. Thanks to the presence of Harkin, which rendered Iowa's lead-off caucuses a non-event, all of the early action would be in the Granite State, which would vote on Feb. 18. On the Tuesday before the deadline, Cuomo dispatched his New Hampshire liaison, a former state party chairman named Joe Grandmaison, to pick up the necessary paperwork. "They've chosen to be prepared," Grandmaison said of Cuomo and his team. Back in Albany, a plane was chartered, although Cuomo insisted that he wouldn't leave the statehouse before resolving a budget impasse with the Republican state Senate. "If I solved the budget crisis tonight in Albany, I would make an announcement right away as to what I am going to do," he said. To all the world, it looked like Cuomo was ready to run, and simply waiting for the last possible moment, just to heighten the drama.

On Friday the 20th, his chartered plane sat idling at the Albany airport. CNN, then the lone cable news network, showed live shots of it throughout the morning. The question wasn't if Cuomo would board it to fly to New Hampshire, but when. Morning turned to afternoon, though, and there was still no sign of the governor. Spectators began doing the math: What was the latest possible minute Cuomo could take off from Albany and still make it to the New Hampshire Statehouse by 5 p.m.? As the skies darkened, it became apparent that there'd be no flight that day.

"It seems to me," Cuomo said at a press conference, "that I cannot turn my attention to New Hampshire while this threat hangs over the head of the New Yorkers that I've sworn to put first."

Exactly why he passed remains a favorite political guessing game to this day. To believe Cuomo's version, he essentially handed the Republican members of New York's State Senate the power to veto his presidential ambitions -- and they happily exercised it. Whatever his precise thinking, at sunset on Dec. 20, 1991, the Democratic field was set. When the party convened in Madison Square Garden seven months later for its national convention, the Democratic presidential nomination had become a virtual ticket to the White House. Bush's numbers had cratered. Few believed he had any idea how to repair the economy and his approval rating was now south of 40 percent. After delivering his acceptance speech on the convention's final night, Bill Clinton stood on stage basking in the crowd's excitement and optimism; polls would soon show him running nearly 30 points ahead of Bush. Joining him on stage was the man he'd just tapped as his running-mate, Al Gore. Also present was Mario Cuomo, who delivered the speech formally nominating Clinton. And down below them, scattered in that sea of euphoric delegates, were all of the big-name Democrats who had once been touted as their party's best and only hope for 1992 -- and who had all decided it just wasn't the right year to run.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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