All of this post-election recrimination is not new. Since the end of the Reagan presidency a quarter century ago, only two Republicans have won the popular presidential vote—George H. W. Bush in 1988, and George W. Bush in 2004. In both cases, the father-and-son wealthy scions of an aristocratic dynasty were nevertheless able to portray their liberal opponents as out of touch elites, and in some way unconcerned with the culture and economic challenges that faced most of America.
In 1988, the late—and now infamous—campaign manager Lee Atwater ran a bare-knuckles Bush campaign that successfully reduced Michael Dukakis to a sort of liberal seignior, whose Massachusetts parole policies logically had led to the early release of repeat murderers like Willie Horton, and whose efforts at catch-up populism ended up in ridiculous fashion with Dukakis wearing an ill-fitted helmet trying to look engaged as he clumsily navigated an Abrams tank. The implicit message was that Dukakis was far more at home in the boutique culture of Harvard Square than at a NASCAR event in southern Ohio—at least more so than even the preppy Bush, who from time to time ate pork-rinds and liked to power-boat at high speeds in choppy waters.
Personality or Policy?
By 2004, the left had successfully caricatured President George W. Bush as a warmonger who got the country bogged down in a hopeless insurgency in Iraq, and as a big-spending conservative hypocrite, who shredded civil liberties to pursue Dick Cheney’s torture-based anti-terrorism witch hunts. In response, Karl Rove and the Bush strategists had, by November 2004, reminded the voters that in comparison to the Texas-accented Bush, who was photographed constantly in jeans chain-sawing scrub brush on his ranch, John Kerry was an out-of-touch Francophile grandee. Kerry, we were advised, seemed more comfortable in one of his wife’s many mansions, in spandex road-biking gear or ridiculously wind surfing in a wet suit. And his Dukakis-like strained efforts to play the common man—often in brand-new L. L. Bean-looking camouflage duck hunting attire—likewise backfired.
When conservative PAC campaign ads replayed Kerry’s youthful anti-Vietnam War testimony to Congress—where he rather pompously in nasal tones pronounced Genghis Khan as “Jhingus Khaan”—the effect was not just that the military veteran Kerry was seen as a Sixties anti-war icon, but, more importantly, that he had been a sort of Harvard snob about it. If voters were both tired of and angry with Bush, enough of them nonetheless found the president far more down-to-earth and personable than they did the sanctimonious, droning Kerry who had married into, rather than created, his fortune.
Yet aside from the folksy Reagan of humble beginnings, and these two isolated successes, no other Republican candidate has managed successfully to play the populist card, as someone who did not just pander to but actually liked the working classes. George H. W. Bush’s reelection campaign of 1992 was sabotaged by the cranky, animated populist, Ross Perot. The latter far better appealed to the third-party antecedents of the Tea Party.