Bush Stood Up to "America First" Over His Political Future
Although foreign policy had propelled President George H.W. Bush to approval ratings of 90 percent after the Gulf War, a populist revolt over free trade became a political liability practically overnight. Toward the end of 1991, two out of three Americans believed the country was on the wrong track, the same percentage that disapproved of the President’s handling of the economy. America had won the Cold War, but world leadership meant little to the millions of Americans suffering from the lackluster economy at home.
At a moment when his political future was on the line, President Bush went straight to the American people, defending free trade and its importance to the United States and to the international community. Bush lost his election, but, in doing so, sustained a political consensus that allowed the United States to expand free markets over the coming decades.
As populist anger morphed into calls for protectionism, President Bush initially attributed attacks to partisan “liberal Democratic carping.”
He soon realized, however, that the “carping” was not contained to the Democrat side of the aisle. In October 1991, Republican David Duke defeated the White House’s candidate Buddy Roehmer in the Louisiana open primary. The race had received international attention due to Duke’s isolationist views, Holocaust denials, and history as a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The Louisiana “jungle primary” proved not to be an aberration.
On Nov. 4 of that same year, Democrat Harris Wofford pulled off a major upset victory over President Bush’s former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh in the Pennsylvania Senate race. To underscore Wofford’s theme -- “It’s time to take care of our own” – campaign aides sported t-shirts advertising “The George Bush Tour” that traveled “anywhere but the USA.”
Seeing the shifting political winds, President Bush took to the campaign trail to defend free trade. Over the course of numerous appearances, he advanced three arguments to the American people.
First, history vindicated the case for free trade over isolationism and protectionism. President Bush argued that the “old flat-Earth theories of protectionism”—defined by a “horse-and-buggy attitude”— stood in marked contrast to the spirit that allowed Columbus to discover the Americas. “We tried economic isolation, protectionism,” Bush reminded in reference to the interwar years, “and we helped set off a worldwide depression.”
Second, U.S. economic engagement in the world was necessary to advance a global order congenial to U.S. interests. He dismissed as a “stubborn fantasy” the notion that the United States could “live as an isolated island surrounded by a changing and developing world.”
In a November 1991 speech to the Future Farmers of America in Missouri, he noted that the “global marketplace” was not just “somewhere in Asia or in Europe” but, rather, was producing “historical opportunities” in “Kansas City and in Birmingham and Bakersfield and the Silicon Valley.” The “noisy voices that want to withdraw us into isolationism and protectionism,” the president argued to the Illinois Farm Bureau, were ignoring the reality that America will “remain first only if we stay engaged in world markets.”
Third, President Bush viewed free trade as part of a broader agenda—the “tough, rewarding task of promoting worldwide economic liberty.” He envisioned a “vibrant international economic system that unites markets on every continent. The alternative, Fortress America, he argued “will doom us to irrelevance and poverty” because protectionism “closes markets,” “ensures poverty,” and “costs jobs.”
By December 1991, the presidential campaign was heating up and challengers from all sides of the political spectrum were calling for a greater focus on domestic issues. In the Spring 1990 issue of the National Interest, Patrick Buchanan had outlined his foreign policy views in a fiery article entitled “America First – and Second, and Third.” The erstwhile Cold Warrior called for far-reaching U.S. retrenchment from the world. The article presaged Buchanan’s surge in popularity as the preeminent conservative voice against American global leadership. By September 1990, the New York Times was reporting on the rise of a “Buchanan faction” in the conservative movement. The message was resonating. In November 1990, The Nation's Eric Alterman referred to Buchanan as “the most visible of all our superstar political pundits.”
In December, Buchanan announced that he would challenge President Bush for the Republican nomination. He cited the President’s internationalism as a rationale for entering the race: “Mr. Bush’s all-consuming passion lies in some gauzy New World Order … Mr. Bush is an Ivy League globalist wedded to such institutions as the U.N. and World Bank, when we Americans have got to start looking out for America first.”
Polling suggested that the initial returns on the president’s speeches were not ideal. By a 4-1 margin, Americans agreed in a Gallup poll that “we shouldn’t think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems.”
The president refused to back down. “Jobs, jobs, jobs,” he explained to critics who questioned the purpose for his leaving the country for Asia, “In this new world, old notions no longer apply. The sharp lines that once separated foreign and domestic policy have been overtaken by a new reality. If we want to put people to work here at home, we’ve got to expand trade and to open markets.”
Upon his return from Japan, President Bush’s approval ratings fell to the lowest point of his presidency. Partly, the issue was untimely footage of the president, stricken with the flu, vomiting and fainting into the lap of the Japanese prime minister. But even before the president’s trip, concern was growing about a seeming zero-sum competition between the United States and Japan. A majority of Americans believed that Japan would become the leading economic power of the 21st century and feared that the Japanese economic threat was more dire than the Soviet military one. Eighty-six percent of Americans were willing to accept slower economic growth in both the US and Japan if it meant preserving US economic leadership. Over 60 percent told pollsters that they were avoiding Japanese goods as part of the growing “Buy America” campaign.
Anti-Japan books were topping bestseller lists. Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun accused Japan of surpassing the U.S. through “adversarial trade, trade like war, trade intended to wipe out the competition.” George Friedman even published a book entitled, The Coming War With Japan, which predicted a military conflict between the U.S. and Japan sometime in the next two decades due to economic tensions.
President Bush’s political problems were only compounded by the growing grassroots effort to draft Texas billionaire Ross Perot as a third-party candidate. Trade policy issues stood at the center of Perot’s bid. Facing economic challenges and a large national debt, he blamed NAFTA and the Bush Administration’s free trade agenda for outsourcing American jobs. Perot entered the race in May and only a month later, led the race with 37 percent over Bush and Clinton tied at 24 percent.
Even as the challenges from Buchanan and Perot receded, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton continued to attack the President, repeating in his stump speeches that America needed a president who cared about the Middle West as well as the Middle East.
Clinton’s attacks worked. But as president, he had his predecessor to thank for preserving bipartisan support for free trade. Due in large part to NAFTA and other landmark trade agreements, Clinton could champion the longest peacetime economic expansion in American history and a world order underwritten by a prosperous, outward-looking United States.