Why Bush 41, a great president, won only one term

Bush defied this general trend by winning a third consecutive term for the Republican party — a testament to voter confidence in Reagan-Bush governance. Alas, winning a fourth term would have been truly extraordinary. Only the Jeffersonian Republicans, Lincolnian Republicans, Teddy Rooosevelt–McKinley Republicans, and FDR Democrats have managed that. And at the risk of “special pleading,” one can argue that side factors in these cases helped the incumbent party win a fourth consecutive term (or more). Westward expansion left the Federalist opponents of Jefferson electorally isolated; the Civil War and Reconstruction gave the Lincoln Republicans a boost; the unlikely rise of Teddy Roosevelt transformed the Republican party and extended its rule; the Great Depression’s end and the foreign troubles that led to World War II gave FDR and Truman multiple terms beyond two.

Bush had no such political winds at his back. The economy sank into a recession in 1990. It was a mild one, in historical perspective, but the recovery from it felt very slow, making Republican “trickle-down economics” an easy target of Democratic ire. And the politics in Bush’s own party had grown untenable. The GOP coalition created in 1980 was built on tax cuts, military-spending increases, and cuts in domestic spending. The latter proved politically impossible, but the Republicans still cut taxes and increased military spending, yielding a massive budget deficit. This, in turn, divided the Reagan coalition by the 1990s: Conservative Republicans were still demanding spending cuts, while moderate Republicans and middle-of-the-road voters still opposed them.

Between the recession and the politics of deficit reduction, Bush’s reelection was a tough prospect.