Over here on the populism part of this blog, this April is about 1994.

In the last two weeks, I’ve identified two linchpin moments that shifted the early 90s to the late 90s – in brief, the guns to the heads of Kurt Cobain and O.J. Simpson. There was a third gun to a head in 1994 – or at least, that’s what Bill Kristol called it. This was the gun that moved American political affairs from the populist, solution-based, 80s-rejecting early 90s to the Republican-priority-laden late 90s.

If you’ve been reading these 20-year anniversary essays, you’ve noticed that part of my project is to revive the reputation of the first half of the 90s, a period that tends to get swept under a general rug with a Clinton-oriented view of the entire decade. The rise of President William Jefferson Clinton, actually, is often misunderstood by both the left and the right. Both sides need a better sense of what he was – and what he wasn’t.

Any time the subject of the first President Bush is broached on a news program featuring Mary Matalin, she gets nostalgic about “Poppy” and asserts that Bush would have won the 1992 election if it hadn’t been for that meddling…Ross Perot, who earned 19% of the vote. But Bush’s problems went beyond Perot. It’s very difficult for any party to win four Presidential elections in a row (even three ain’t easy). Fatigue sets in, and not only regarding the party. By 1992, Americans had proved themselves tired of most things 1980s, including feathered hair, Jane Fonda workout tapes, bad animation, cheesy music, the Cold War, denim jackets, et cetera. Instead of the Gulf War papering over our problems, it made them more poignant, from race relations to AIDS to sexual harassment (did America even know that phrase before Bush tapped Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall?). Bush said he wanted to be the education president and the environmental president. By 1992, what was he doing about that?

George Bush might have won anyway, by doing something with those 90% approval ratings in the days after the Gulf War. The problem was that Bush didn’t offer anything other than those approval ratings. Before the day in January 1992 when he vomited on Japan’s Prime Minister, the most famous thing to come out of his mouth was “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Ever since, Republicans have blamed the 1992 loss on his failure to live up to the pledge, but I tell you that was only half the problem; the less acknowledged half was the very flash-and-trash 80s spirit in which it was offered. “Read my lips” sounded like the latest cheese-ball Pepsi commercial to feature a Michael – either J. Fox or the one with his hair on fire. Thus, in the Presidential debates, when Clinton was pressed on whether or not he would raise taxes, he could hedge and say (and he did) “The problem was making the read-my-lips pledge in the first place.” It says something about the desire for reality in 1992 that that was the last time Americans decided they could handle a candidate not explicit ruling out more taxes. But Bush gave Clinton the rhetorical space by sounding so silly in the first place. Bush could have done better in the three-way Presidential debates by resorting to fewer of his old platitudes, because the three-pronged nature of the contest favored nuance (and not just attacking the other guy). Walking away from the “read my lips” pledge was well in line with an America that had, as my last posts made clear, also walked away from lip-synching and lip service (a.k.a., the style-over-substance 1980s).

Let’s not over-state Bill Clinton’s claim to more groundedness; the campaign was most famous for a theme song (“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow”) and the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid.” But in longer conversations, Clinton and Perot both made it clear that the end of the Cold War didn’t mean the end of America’s problems. Bush was treating the L.A. riots and the economy’s issues like ignorable speed bumps. At that point, even over-gated, over-suburbanized America was sick of speed bumps. Basically, 1992 was a populist moment: people wanted the problems of the 51% to get some attention. They wanted more women in office, more action on AIDS, more than lip service on schools and the environment, and more paying down our deficit – Bush wasn’t working toward any of these.

But if “Poppy” Bush misread America in 1992, Bill Clinton misread it in 1993. People were sick of Republicans, but that didn’t mean they wanted the government overreach that was the “Health Security Act,” or as we now call it, Hillarycare. The Democrats assumed that the end of 12 years outside the Oval Office meant the end of the repression of all their governing priorities, universal health care being their north star. But the 57% of the 1992 vote that Clinton didn’t get was real; the country’s rightward shift during the Reagan years was real. Essentially – and this is quite comparable to our current moment – by over-committing to health care, the Democrats mistook the country’s actual populism for unactual liberalism. Besides tinkering on the edges with things like gays in the military, Clinton should have only tried for either a tax increase or a health care overhaul with his first Congress, not both. (Thank God for the first, or we’d never have seen a deficit surplus in our lifetimes.) The consequences would be severe for Democrats: the 1994 midterms that created the first Republican-led House in 40 years.

But if 1994 was bad for Democrats, it was arguably worse for the country, because it codified a scorched-earth discourse that we’re still living with today. In the same year that Kurt Cobain and O.J. Simpson put firearms to their faces, Bill Kristol thought it would be fun to describe Hillarycare as a “gun to the head” of America in one of his infamous memos. Kristol was cheered by no one so much as that other famous memo-maker Newt Gingrich, the new Speaker of the House, who then told his fellow Republicans what language to use when talking about Democrats:

“decay, failure (fail) collapse(ing) deeper, crisis, urgent(cy), destructive, destroy, sick, pathetic, lie, liberal, they/them, unionized bureaucracy, “compassion” is not enough, betray, consequences, limit(s), shallow, traitors, sensationalists, endanger, coercion, hypocricy, radical, threaten, devour, waste, corruption, incompetent, permissive attitude, destructive, impose, self-serving, greed, ideological, insecure, anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs; pessimistic, excuses, intolerant, stagnation, welfare, corrupt, selfish, insensitive, status quo, mandate(s) taxes, spend (ing) shame, disgrace, punish (poor…) bizarre, cynicism, cheat, steal, abuse of power, machine, bosses, obsolete, criminal rights, red tape, patronage.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the late 1990s. And the new language of war on “traitors” generally worked, and probably would have given Bob Dole the 1996 election had it not been for an improving economy, a right-wing terrorist named Timothy McVeigh, and Dole’s rhetorical error which allowed Clinton to speak of a “bridge to the 21st century.” At their best, when reducing crime, paying off the deficit, and regulating (and not regulating) the new internet economy, those late 90s politics did make a nice-looking bridge, let’s say at least a Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. (These were reasonable populist priorities, and would have felt like triumphs for Americans in a less over-heated political environment.) At their worst, when it was all-impeachment-all-the-time, the bridge looked more like the broken-plank-affair that Indiana Jones cut through in Temple of Doom. Hang on, lady. Both parties took us for a riiiiiiiiide.

Next week: Part 4 of 4 – The Movies