Bush’s Brain Forgets History

Karl Rove, with his latest Wall Street Journal op-ed, becomes one of the countless political observers to bemoan the excessively lengthy presidential campaign process. He (and everyone else before him) clearly has a point. But he also invokes some familiar and misleading history to make his case:

It wasn’t always like this. Bill Clinton announced for president on Oct. 3, 1991. At this point in the 1992 presidential contest, he’d been a candidate for 10 weeks. George W. Bush made his first campaign speech on June 12, 1999. At this point in the 2000 race, he’d been a candidate for just over five months.

Bill Clinton’s October 1991 campaign launch is one of the most overused a misunderstood references employed in political analysis. What Rove and so many others seem to forget is that the Gulf War meant there was almost no presidential politicking from the fall of 1990 – when the troop build-up in Saudi Arabia began – until months after the March 1991 end of hostilities, an event that caused President George H.W. Bush’s approval rating soared to 91 percent.This meant that the biggest names in the Democratic Party back then – Bill Bradley, Al Gore, Lloyd Bentsen, Dick Gephardt, Jay Rockefeller, and others– all passed up the chance to run, calculating that Bush was unbeatable. Only one candidate – Paul Tsongas – jumped in before the late summer or early fall of ’91, and he was treated as nothing more than a curiosity. Clinton – and everyone else who ultimately ran – would have jumped in much sooner had it none been for the Gulf War. But Rove leaves the impression that there was a full-fledged campaign raging around Clinton, and that he waited until late in the game to enter. Not true at all. The late start date to the ’92 process was a fluke.Rove also forgets that this year’s early start isn’t exactly a recent phenomenon. Jimmy Carter announced his 1976 presidential candidacy in November of 1974 – earlier than any of this year’s candidates jumped in. What has changed since ’76, obviously, is that Carter’s early start is now standard. But on the whole, this year’s calendar is not a radical departure from the norm. That Democratic race in ’92 was largely settled by March, setting the stage for an eight-month fall campaign. This year, we should get a nine-month campaign. They’re both too long – but we’re not exactly in the uncharted waters that Rove suggests.