Back in 1992, the two major English-speaking democracies (the United Kingdom and the United States) held elections which, while they went different ways, the more conservative party holding on in the UK while being voted out here, offered a similar lesson — that when times are tough, people are only willing to change course when they have confidence in the opposing party. In both nations, the opposition party led in polls in the immediate run-up to the general election.
While Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party picked up seats that year, substantially reducing the Conservative majority in Parliament, voters deciding at the last minute opted for the incumbent party, not confident that the Kinnock, from Labour’s left wing, could pull the UK out of its then-lingering recession. Thus, even in a recession, British voters preferred the mundane Major and his incumbent Conservatives to his more colorful challenger.
In our country, however, also suffering under a recession, Bill Clinton presented himself as “New Democrat.” And while he was critical of then-President George H.W. Bush’s policies, he, unlike the Democrats of today, did not oppose everything a President Bush proposed. He was mealy-mouthed on the First Gulf War, eventually coming out in favor and agreed with the incumbent on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). So well did he put forward his in that campaign that I can still remember it fourteen years later. That Democrat promised a middle-class tax cut and to “end welfare as we know it.”
In short, Clinton won in 1992, not merely because things were not as good as they had been in the 1980s, but because he put forward a more moderate agenda than had previous Democratic nominees. More importantly, he used his charm to present his platform in a positive manner. Unlike his Republican opponent that year, he had learned from Ronald Reagan and knew to be optimistic, playing to people’s hopes.