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History Says Bush Can't Win

By Kenneth A. Katz

For precedent-oriented pundits of presidential-election politics, the 1988 contest was supposed to be a joke. George Bush didn't stand a chance.

Bush was, after all, a sitting vice president, and no sitting vice president had captured the Oval Office since Martin van Buren did it in 1836. Plus, he was facing a Democratic Boston-Austin ticket of Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen. In 1960, this same geographical combination--John F. Kennedy '41 and Lyndon Baines Johnson--defeated Richard Nixon, the last sitting vice president to lose a presidential election. That seemed like a crippling amount of historical baggage to carry in a campaign.

While focusing on Bush's status as a sitting vice president, though, most of these pundits missed the gig on Dukakis--no Democratic governor from Massachusetts has ever won the presidency. So it really was no big shocker that Bush won four years ago, despite the historical hurdles he had to clear.

But this time around, Bush will have no such luck. In 1992, all precedents point to a victory for Bill Clinton.

Let's start with the biggee: the Truman factor. Both Bush and Clinton have explicitly tried to claim the legacy of Harry S Truman, A Democrat, as their own. Bush likes to see this campaign as a replay of 1948's "Dewey Defeats Truman" election, in which Truman, the incumbent, surprised everybody by coming from behind to win. Clinton, on the other hand, says he's more faithful to Truman's beliefs.

This precedent may seem like a toss-up, but two key facts have been ignored. The first is that Clinton, like Truman, has only one daughter, while Bush, like Martin van Buren, has four sons (and a daughter as well). That gives Clinton an edge on the Truman claim and makes Bush more like van Buren--who, by the way, lost his bid for a second term in 1840.

The importance of family matters, indeed, cannot be overlooked. Two presidents--Andrew Jackson and Rutherford Hayes--were born after their fathers' deaths, and neither of them ever lost a presidential election. Clinton's father died before he was born--a personal tragedy for the Arkansan, to be sure, but a good political omen.

Then there's the education factor. And in presidential elections, the fact is that Yale sucks. Two Yalies--graduates of Yale College, that is--have served as presidents--William Taft and Gerald Ford. (But the way 5 Harvard grads have made it to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.) Both Yalie presidents lost their re-election bids to Democratic challengers. Badly.

Geography kicks into the equation as well. Bush hails from Texas, Clinton from Arkansas. The last time two Southerners squared off in a presidential race was in 1844, when James Polk, a Democrat from Tennessee, defeated Henry Clay, a Whig from Kentucky. In 1832, Andrew Jackson, another Tennessee Democrat, also defeated Clay.

All this bodes badly for Bush and well for Clinton.

While this isn't just a two-person race, it's clear Perot doesn't have a chance in hell to win outright. That's because none of America's 41 presidents have been named H. Ross (or even just plain Ross). There are precedents, however, for George (as in Washington) and variations on the Bill theme (as in William Henry Harrison, who--not coincidentally--defeated van Buren in his re-election bid back in 1840).

In fact, since the institutionalization of political parties in American politics early last century, a third-party candidate has never captured the presidency. What this year's pesky independent can do, however, is attract votes away from one candidate, thereby helping the other.

But history says it won't happen that way. The last relatively serious independent to run for president was John Anderson in 1980. Anderson didn't get any electoral votes himself, and he didn't affect significantly Reagan's landslide over Carter.

The two most prominent independents before Anderson--segregationists George Wallace and Strom Thurmond, in 1968 and 1948, respectively--did garner some electoral votes, but not enough to be a factor in Nixon's election or Truman's re-election. So, like his independent predecessors, Perot will emerge as merely a footnote in this election.

Despite Bush's handicaps and Perot's irrelevence, Clinton does face some obstacles himself. Take religion, for example. The last time a Baptist (like Clinton) took on an Episcopal (like Bush) for the presidency was 1980, when Carter, a Baptist, got whupped by Reagan, and Episcopal.

And younger Democratic challengers have a poor record against older Republican incumbents. The last three times this match-up has occurred ended in disasters for Democrats--like Mondale's loss to Reagan in 1984, McGovern's to Nixon in 1972, and Stevenson's to Eisenhower in 1956. The last Democrat to succeed in this situation was Franklin Roosevelt '04, who beat Hoover in 1932.

But in the context of this election, these precedents are less weighty than Bush's problems--with van Buren, his family, his education and his Southerness. For these reasons, my money's on Clinton tomorrow.

America's shoudl be too, both in the figurative and the literal sense. The last time Republicans controlled the White House for four straight terms was from 1920 to 1932. That reign ended after Hoover stewarded the country into its worst depression ever. The worst since then, of course, is the current recession, which has hit during Bush's watch.

Which, according to history, ends tomorrow.

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