I’ve been thinking about the current crop of Republican contenders for the 2012 nomination and how it compares to the Democrats in the runup to 1992. Most Republicans don’t seem particularly happy with their slate of candidates right now, and it’s already May. But in 1991, several high-profile Democrats declined to run against Bush, leaving Democrats to ponder losing a fourth presidential election in a row. It wasn’t until October 1991 that Bill Clinton declared his candidacy.
I searched the New York Times archives for articles appearing in 1990-1991 that contained “bill clinton” and “1992.” Here are some excerpts. (I subscribe to the weekend print edition of the paper, so I can access all this stuff online for free, but I realize many of you might not be able to – and that you might not even care about this stuff, for that matter, but I long ago gave up on most people sharing my geekiness.)
December 3, 1990:
Democrats, Albeit Late, Ponder Presidential Bid
With the 1990 midterm elections finally over, Democrats with Presidential ambitions are entering a season of decision.
It is already a remarkably late-starting campaign, given the norms of modern politics. …
But in December 1990, not a single paid worker for a Democratic Presidential campaign plods the streets of Des Moines, says a somewhat mystified Iowa Democratic Party. Elsewhere in political circles, there are quiet whispers in the clubby world of fund-raisers and nervous rumors in the ranks of consultants, but little real action and perhaps even less real information. …
Others who usually get mentioned whenever two or more Democrats are gathered together include Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, who has maintained a notable national travel schedule; the Rev. Jesse Jackson, automatically considered a factor in Democratic campaigns; Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, although he says he intends to serve out his new term as Governor; Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, although Democrats are still buzzing about his political near-death experience in last month’s election, and Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. The list could go on. …
Combined with the uncertainty over the economy, the Persian Gulf crisis makes it hard to assess Mr. Bush’s vulnerability in 1992. “Bush could either be politically enshrined or politically deceased based on a couple of events,” said Harrison Hickman, a Democratic poll taker.
May 20, 1991:
Democrats Stick Toes In Waters of 1992 Race
Nine months before the Presidential contests begin, former Senator Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts remains the only official candidate for the Democratic nomination, but a number of Democrats are suddenly sniffing the air. …
They are, by and large, newcomers to Presidential politics, with a chance of making a name in a wide-open contest, and perhaps with less to lose than those higher on the ladder of Democratic leadership. …
Here is a look at some of the most-watched “potentials,” as they are known in Democratic circles, with the caveat that this is an ever-expanding and contracting field:
Gov. Bill Clinton The Arkansas Democrat said he would serve out his four-year term when he ran for re-election last year, but he clearly enjoys the Presidential speculation now swirling around him. Betsey Wright, the state Democratic chairwoman and a longtime Clinton adviser, said she saw “no signs that he has been seriously seduced by it.”
But Mr. Clinton has a national platform as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of centrist and conservative Democrats, and he has been traveling the country honing a domestic message. When pressed on his presidential ambitions in a recent interview, Mr. Clinton said: “It’s not anything I’ve ruled out over the long run. It’s just a question of whether it should be done now.”
(Again, that was in May before an election year, the same point we’re at right now.)
August 8, 1991:
Democrats’ Distress Grows As Presidential Field Shrinks
Democrats struggled today to adjust to the last thing they needed six months before the Iowa caucuses: an already tiny Presidential field that keeps shrinking.
As expected, Senator John D. Rockefeller 4th announced in Charleston, W.Va., today that he would not seek the 1992 Democratic Presidential nomination. That announcement, just three weeks after Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the House majority leader, took himself out of the race, combined with the demurrals of other Democratic heavyweights to create a frustrating, embarrassing pattern for the party. …
Representative Robert G. Torricelli, Democrat of New Jersey, said, “This is no longer an entertaining situation. This is becoming a serious problem.”
Senator Rockefeller’s withdrawal is expected to open new opportunities for those who seem eager to run, like Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. It is also expected to heighten the pressure on Senator Al Gore of Tennessee and Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York to enter the race.
In the modern world of nominating politics, this is remarkably late for a novice to mount a Presidential campaign, particularly one against a popular President. Both Mr. Gore, who ran in 1988, and Mr. Cuomo are widely considered to have the name recognition, political base and fund-raising potential to jump into the race late and mount a formidable campaign.
August 14, 1991:
Arkansas Chief Seeks to Lead Democrats to Middle Ground
It is an article of faith in the Democratic Party that the nation’s domestic problems will someday be the party’s ticket back to the White House.
But some strategists argue that the Democrats must first deal with the baggage they have acquired over the past generation: the notion, so devastatingly purveyed by the Republicans, that Democrats are addicted to bloated, inefficient “giveaway” programs, financed on the backs of the middle class. Only a rethinking of liberal orthodoxy and a fresh vision of government will reclaim the voters, these strategists say. Symbol of New South
Enter Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who for some in the party is becoming the great moderate hope of the 1992 race for the Democratic Presidential nomination. …
He faces the perennial problem of governors: a resume gap on foreign policy, which could be all the more glaring against a President who revels in his role as Commander in Chief. He comes from a small state and will probably pay a price for it in fund raising. He is known by only a tiny proportion of the electorate, according to public opinion polls. …
“He may not win the nomination, he may not win the general election, but he does have the potential to remake the party,” says Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, an offshoot of the leadership council. “And I think that’s important this time around, because you can’t let the party keep repeating the same old hackneyed mistakes and lose one more generation of voters.” …
August 16, 1991:
Arkansas Governor Forms Presidential Panel
Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas said today that he would form a committee to explore a run for the Presidency next year and would resign as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council.
“I want to make it clear that I have not made a decision as to whether to seek the nomination,” Mr. Clinton said in a news release. “But forming an exploratory committee will give me a means to look into this in a lot more detail and get the kind of information I need to consider right now.” …
August 22, 1991:
Gore Won’t Run for President in 1992
Senator Al Gore announced yesterday that he would not seek the 1992 Democratic nomination for President, adding his name to a growing list of Democrats who have decided not to challenge President Bush next year. …
Mr. Gore’s decision not to seek the Presidency in 1992 has placed another layer of uncertainty over a race that has so far been stalled for lack of candidates. …
Only former Senator Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts has formally declared his candidacy for the 1992 race. So far his candidacy has garnered little of the attention that usually accompanies a Presidential campaign. …
Democratic strategists predicted yesterday that Mr. Gore’s decision would most likely help Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who announced last week that he was forming a committee to explore a Presidential candidacy. …
Republicans have appeared to enjoy watching the Democratic field dwindle as candidate after candidate abandoned the race this year. A spokesman for the Republican National Committee would not comment on Mr. Gore’s exit yesterday, but Charles Black, a leading Republican strategist said earlier this month that the decisions “certainly speak to what they think their prospects of winning are.”
If the Democrats now seem at a loss, said Carter Eskew, a friend and political adviser to Mr. Gore, “It’s nothing that a good nominee won’t solve.”
August 26, 1991:
By their actions, some of the party’s leaders seem willing to take a pass on 1992 and then reassert their Presidential ambitions in 1996. But after a fourth consecutive Presidential defeat, after losing six of the last seven Presidential elections, how much long-term damage would the party incur? Already, polls show an ominous trend for the Democrats as a Presidential party, with voters age 18 to 29, who have only Jimmy Carter in their memories as a Democratic President, identifying more and more as Republicans.
October 4, 1991:
Arkansas’ Clinton Enters The ’92 Race for President
Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas entered the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination today with an unstinting indictment of a decade of Republican domestic policies and a promise to restore the American dream for “the forgotten middle class.” …
Mr. Clinton is the fifth major candidate to enter the race for the Democratic nomination. His declaration today follows a month when the Democratic field suddenly came to life, after a summer when one leading Democrat after another backed away from a challenge to Mr. Bush. The new class of candidates, in contrast, scents opportunity even amid the towering Bush approval ratings.
Mr. Clinton presented his case against the Republicans today with smooth confidence and a trace of disdain. He asserted that the Republicans “have washed their hands of responsibility for the economy, for education, for health care and for social policy.” Rather than leadership and vision, Mr. Clinton asserted, they had offered only “neglect and selfishness and division.”
I like that last part. Some things never change.
Anyway, you just never know. Based on the quality of the GOP candidates, I would say Obama’s chances for re-election right now are pretty good. But so much can happen in a year and a half.