woody zimmermann 120During his 1980 primary-campaign for the Republican presidential nomination – before he joined the Reagan ticket as Vice-presidential candidate – George H. W. Bush joked about “the vision thing.” Reporters caught his jocular tone and widely broadcast the quip – possibly to show that GHW was not a serious candidate. They didn’t take the upstart actor, Ronald Reagan, seriously either. He promised an economic recovery and increased federal revenues by cutting taxes. How crazy was that? George H. W. called it “voodoo economics.”

Was Mr. Bush poking fun at the vision painted by his Republican opponent, Reagan? Or was he poo-poohing the whole idea of having a “vision” for the country? We never knew, and he never clarified. But he didn’t repeat his quip after becoming vice-president and eventually president. Never a man lacking in grace, Mr. Bush obviously appreciated the fact that Reagan’s vision had put him in the Oval Office. The “vision thing” never came up again.

Mr. Bush articulated his own vision of a “kinder and gentler” presidency that wouldn’t raise taxes – that is, when he wasn’t making war on Iraq to boot Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. The short, glorious Desert Storm let him strike a heroic pose. He looked unbeatable for ’92. Yet he lost to a virtually unknown Arkansas governor whose vision of “change” captivated voters – many of them young people who had no idea that much of what their charming southern Bubba was shoveling should have been left piled up in the barnyard.

Mr. Bush wounded himself mortally when he broke his “no new taxes” pledge – a key part of his vision – in a 1991 deal with Democrats to get budget-cuts in return for a tax-increase. (A scam first mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls.) Naturally, the tax-rise zoomed right through, but the cuts never happened, leaving Mr. Bush branded as a tax-traitor.

The broken pledge and a mild post-war recession gave the Clinton Camp the opening they needed to call the Bush economy “the worst since the Great Depression.” People of President Bush’s generation – who had actually lived through the Great Depression – knew the charge was rubbish, so no one contested it. Barbara Bush later admitted that they thought no one could possibly buy such a preposterous claim.

But young people – who wouldn’t have known the Great Depression from the Great Gildersleeve – swallowed it whole. A young woman at my office said she and her friends thought it was “time for a change.” Of course they did! They had never known anything except the halcyon Reagan-Bush years. The mild, post-war downturn seemed like economic doom to them. The Clintons’ War Room featured a prominent poster declaring: “It’s the economy, stupid!” It was a winner.

Previously unknown zillionaire Ross Perot came out of nowhere to run a credible third-party campaign, helping Mr. Clinton to storm into office with 43% of the popular vote – the lowest winning total in history. Mr. Perot won no states, but his 19% of the popular vote – drawn mostly from disaffected conservatives and Reagan Democrats – weakened Mr. Bush enough to let Mr. Clinton win 32 states, plus DC, and an electoral majority of 370-168. (Lesson: a vision is fine, but splitting your opponent’s voters is better still.)

Mr. Clinton soon showed that the centerpiece of his change-vision was higher taxes. A Democratic Congress eagerly enacted them in the summer of 1993. Federal reports showed that (Surprise!) the Bush recession was not as bad as Mr. Clinton had claimed, but voters hated both the tax-hike and the sleazy smell coming from the Clinton White House. A historic 1994 electoral “tsunami” put both houses of Congress in Republican hands for the first time in 40 years – a huge rejection of Mr. Clinton’s prospect of $200 billion-deficits “as far as the eye could see.” (Another part of his “vision” left unmentioned in the campaign.)

Thoroughly chastised, Mr. Clinton humbly declared: “the era of big government is over.” Who knew if he meant it, but strong leadership from House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other conservatives helped Mr. Clinton to act as if he did. Mr. Gingrich and the Republicans managed some notable achievements, including welfare-reform which reduced welfare rolls and put millions of people back to work.

By the end of Mr. Clinton’s second term, the economy was humming and the federal budget was in surplus for the first time nearly 30 years. Democrats later claimed that Mr. Clinton did it, but a conservative Republican Congress was the true driving force. Mr. Clinton signed the welfare-reform act of 1996 to help his re-election. Many political historians believe it helped him beat the lackluster Bob Dole, aged 73. As insurance, the Clintons made sure that Ross Perot ran again. He won only 8.4% of the popular vote, but it crippled Mr. Dole, who won only 41% and just 159 of 538 electoral votes.

The ever-astute Bill Clinton had sniffed the political wind and made a classic vision-revision to embrace many elements that conservative Republicans championed. He even toured the country admitting that he had raised taxes “too much” in 1993. He also placated his political base – outraged by the 1996 welfare cuts – by promising to reverse those cuts at the earliest moment. That reversal did not come until the Obama administration. (Many economists believe Mr. Obama’s relaxation of Mr. Clinton’s tighter welfare rules contributed to the low levels of worker-employment during his presidency.)

Mr. Clinton’s booming economy should have set Vice-president Al Gore up to cruise into the presidency. But that advantage was wrecked by Mr. Clinton’s Achilles Heel – a weakness for a well-turned ankle. A year into his second term the Monica Lewinsky scandal blew up, striking his presidency a severe blow. Special Prosecutor Ken Starr found that Mr. Clinton had tampered with a jury and lied to a grand jury in legal proceedings involving sexual harassment charges made by Arkansas state employee Paula Jones against then-Governor Clinton.

In December 1998 the House of Representatives passed two articles of impeachment – lying to a federal grand jury and obstruction of justice (jury-tampering) – which it sent to the Senate for trial. Either charge, if proven, would certainly have sent any ordinary citizen to jail. But, of course, Mr. Clinton was no ordinary citizen. With every Democrat voting to acquit, Mr. Clinton beat both articles: 10 Republicans joining 45 Democrats to vote “not guilty” on the perjury charge; and a winning 50-50 vote on the obstruction of justice charge.

After the Senate-trial, President Clinton said he was “profoundly sorry” for the burden his behavior had placed on Congress and the American people. He had beaten the impeachment rap, but his presidency merely staggered on to an inglorious conclusion. The jury-tampering charge was clearly true. After his presidency, it cost Mr. Clinton his law license for five years. He also paid $850,000 to settle the Paula Jones lawsuit.

Al Gore almost overcame Mr. Clinton’s debacle, but in November 2000 he narrowly lost to George W. Bush in a squeaker that hinged on a 535-vote margin in Florida. A “selective recount” in Florida’s Dade County was halted by noisy demonstrations, and the U. S. Supreme Court later stopped selective recounts Democrats planned for four Florida counties. Mr. Bush retained Florida, becoming the 43rd president with an electoral margin of 271-266. Democrats have believed, ever since, that the election was “stolen” by the Supreme Court. Mr. Bush’s vision was all but forgotten in the hurly-burly of the election disputes, followed by the dramatic attacks of 9/11/2001 that made him a wartime president.

Verrry interesting, readers may be saying, but what does all this tell us today? The key takeaway is that the “vision thing” is a very powerful factor in the election of a new president. A candidate’s vision for the country’s future can make or break him. And if the public thinks a president has betrayed it, there can be hell to pay.

Sound candidates know that their vision must resonate with enough voters to win. Demagogic or unserious candidates try to stoke the fears of certain voters to get nominated. Sometimes they succeed, but they rarely win the office. Their pitch is: “You are victims. The mess you’re in is not your fault. I’ll set things right. The guilty will be made to pay!”

A candidate’s deportment and verbal skills can also help him. It is definitely an advantage to be an adroit campaigner, but the “vision thing” still dominates. A no-vision candidate simply cannot win.

In 2007, a little-known, one-term U. S. Senator burst onto the political scene with a dazzling display of oratorical virtuosity (plus impeccable $2,000 Armani suits). He bowled Americans over with soaring promises of racial reconciliation and “fundamental change.” He was (as he, himself, declared) “the one we’ve been waiting for.” One pundit said a thrill ran up his leg when he heard this messianic figure’s (largely undefined) vision to change the country. Some called him the world’s smartest man – possibly the smartest man who had ever lived. (I’m not making this up!) It was a surreal time. The country lost its mind over a silver-tongued community organizer who had never run anything.

Today, following Mr. Obama’s disastrous economic performance and wonderland-adventures in foreign policy – which may yet produce nuclear calamity – crowds of candidates from both major parties are vying to convince us that their vision will finally put us right. We lack space here to evaluate details of the vision each one brings – assuming that I had enough inside knowledge to do this (which I do not). But two distinct sets of visions have clearly emerged, essentially along party lines. Here’s how I see it:

Democrats:

> I’ll take care of you. If you elect me, I’ll keep the gravy train rolling.

> I’m smarter and can do it better. I’m a woman. (Need I say more?)

> I’ll destroy our enemies. (Republicans are the worst.) Towel-heads beheading people? Fageddaboutit! Not our problem. Anyway, Tea Party racists, homophobes and misogynists are far worse.

> (All say) We’ll open the proverbial Horn of Plenty and give you tons of free stuff – free college, free birth-control, free abortions, free sex-changes, free grass, free cell-phones. Government’s bounty is unlimited. We’ll achieve income-equality. The “rich” will have to pay “their fair share.” Total sexual freedom is our final frontier. With us in charge, everything is possible.

Republicans:

> I’ll get things done because I can compromise across the aisle. I know how to work with the other side.

> I can do the job because I have had experience in Congress. I know how to stand up to the other side, but I can work with them, too.

> I’ll make things happen because I’m tougher and better at negotiating. I’ll keep the bad people out of the country. I’m make America great again. (And I don’t take no @#$% from nobody.)

> I’m a smart person. I’ll solve our hard problems because I have done more difficult things than just politics. Besides, I’m a nice guy.

> (Most say) Extreme sexual policies must not be imposed on people who believe that these are religious issues. Cultural-normalcy must be restored to protect our children and to guard religious freedom.

> (All say) We want to rebuild the America of boundless opportunity that we once had. We want lower taxes, but we must get our federal finances under control, too. Government cannot solve every problem. It can ensure that everyone has a fair shot, but success is up to the individual. Equality of result cannot be guaranteed.

Maybe I missed something in this brief précis, but hopefully I captured most of it. Every election is important, but 2016 might be crucial for the country. It will come down to choosing one of two paths to the future:

One path leads us to more dependence on government, reduced individual pride, indolence, hopelessness, poverty, degraded morality, racial division, envy, anarchy, a culture of death, crushing debt, and ultimate national disaster.

The other path leads to expanded opportunity, productive lives and work, prosperity, pride in personal achievement, self-reliance, respect for all life, racial harmony, societal order and national greatness.

My hope (and prayer) is that the American people will learn from their past errors in judgment and will be wise and deliberate about choosing a new Commander-in-Chief. This is a very serious duty of a free people. Never has it been more important.

…I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore, choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

May God bless this great nation whose people have done so much for so many, all over the world.