The decay of Reagan Republicanism dates to 1988, Reagan’s final year in office. With no clear-cut successor from the right on the horizon, the party chose Reagan’s dutiful vice president, George W. Bush. A scion of the old GOP establishment, the son of a U.S. senator from Connecticut who was a Wall Street banker and golfing partner of President Dwight Eisenhower, Rush had shifted both rightward and southwesterly over the years. Although he was never able to forge a convincing political identity as a Connecticut Yankee in Texas, as president he dealt with the enormous federal deficits left over from Reagan’s “supply-side” stewardship. In 1990, he finally broke his “no new taxes” vow — thereby earning the enduring contempt of the Republican right. The quirky but effective third-party candidacy of Ross Perot in 1992 was a sure sign that Bush had lost touch with the GOP’s anti-government base, and his inability to cope with a recession tolled his end.
Bill Clinton’s victory over both Bush and Perot seemed to spell a revival of center-left liberalism in a new form. But during his first two years in office, Clinton’s missteps and defeats, coupled with the self-destructive fracturing of the Democratic Congress, handed the Republicans an opportunity to regroup. Their recapture of the House for the first time in 40 years — by forging their “Contract With America” during the midterm elections in 1994 — seemed to portend that Clinton, like his predecessor, would be a one-term president. Yet the brash ideological leadership of the new House speaker, Newt Gingrich, foreshadowed the GOP’s turn to the far right and further hastened the unraveling of the conservative ascendancy. Clinton outfoxed Gingrich in battles over the federal budget and held the line against GOP demands to slash Medicare and cut taxes, and most of the public blamed Congress for the partisan bickering in Washington. In 1996, only two years after Democrats had been repudiated at the polls, Clinton won re-election with an increased plurality, marking the first time a Democrat had won two presidential terms since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936.
The outcome incited congressional Republicans to a fury, and conservative leaders even more doctrinaire than Gingrich — including House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay- took advantage of the anger to hijack the party. In 1998, after a network of right-wing operatives discovered Clinton’s sexual trysts with the young White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the congressional right-wingers forced Clinton’s impeachment. But public backlash over the impeachment drive contributed to Gingrich’s downfall as speaker and Clinton’s acquittal in the Senate. With Clinton’s popularity soaring and his troubles behind him amid peace and prosperity, it looked as if 2000 would bring a solid Democratic victory.
But nothing went right for the Democrats. Their nominee, Vice President Al Gore, believed that the Lewinsky scandal had made Clinton a liability and distanced himself from the very administration he had served so ably. Rather than building on the legacy of the previous eight years, Gore embraced the bogus idea of “Clinton fatigue,” signaled by his naming Joe Lieberman, the sanctimonious Clinton critic, as his running mate. The left wing of the party backed the protest candidacy of Ralph Nader, and the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, ran as a “compassionate conservative” who would uphold the kinder, gentler mode of his father as a kind of Clinton-lite. The press, following its dismal performance as mouthpiece for impeachment prosecutor Ken Starr, gave credence to a string of pseudoscandals about Gore, tarnishing his integrity and casting him as a privileged, self-regarding dissembler. Nader’s nihilistic campaign to destroy Gore won him enough votes to throw New Hampshire to Bush, and the election ultimately turned on the ra-sor-thin margin in Florida. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court, including four Reagan-era appointees (and the man Ronald Reagan had named chief justice, William Rehnquist), finally intervened, stopping the recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court, and made Bush president.
Clinton’s precarious center-left alliance did not hold. With Bush’s court-engineered victory, the conservative ascendancy entered a new and even more radical phase. But that phase would prove to be its last.