A look back at 1991

There’s a fair amount of panic underway in Republican circles, with party officials looking at their field of presidential candidates and wondering which of these guys can beat President Obama next year. It’s not only fueling a sense of dread, the weakness of the field is also pushing the GOP to look for “savior” candidates who might be open to recruitment.

It’s certainly not where the party hoped to find itself eight months before the Iowa caucuses.

With this in mind, a New York Times article from August 1991 has been making the rounds lately, noting a similar situation for Democrats at the time.

Democrats struggled today to adjust to the last thing they needed six months before the Iowa caucuses: an already tiny Presidential field that keeps shrinking.

As expected, Senator John D. Rockefeller 4th announced in Charleston, W.Va., today that he would not seek the 1992 Democratic Presidential nomination. That announcement, just three weeks after Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the House majority leader, took himself out of the race, combined with the demurrals of other Democratic heavyweights to create a frustrating, embarrassing pattern for the party.

While the West Virginia Democrat struggled to cast his decision as a personal one, it left a clear public perception that one leading Democrat after another was looking at the 1992 campaign and deciding that George Bush could not be beaten.

“Am I frustrated?” asked Phil Angelides, chairman of the California Democratic Party. “Absolutely.”

Among the “savior” candidates party officials were reaching out to at the time: Mario Cuomo, Al Gore, and Lloyd Bentsen. The fear was, without a big name in the top tier, not only were Dems sure to lose the presidential race, but it would hurt the party down-ballot, too.

The following year, Bill Clinton not only won fairly easily, but Dems expanded their congressional majorities.

For the purposes of the present day, the point is obvious — Dems were panicked about the weak field in 1991, but the party nevertheless thrived in 1992. Republicans are panicked about the weak field in 2011, but the GOP may still do fine in 2012.

Well, maybe. When that NYT article ran in 1991, what did the Democratic field look like? Paul Tsongas had already announced … and that was it. The party was overcome by anxiety because they had one candidate — a former Massachusetts senator with a history of health trouble. He was the entire field. Six months before the Iowa caucuses, the list of credible Democratic candidates effectively included one person who wasn’t an especially imposing as national figure.

So, sure, Dems weren’t feeling especially confident. Of course they were starting to panic. And soon after, Bill Clinton, Bob Kerrey, Tom Harkin, and Jerry Brown would enter the race — and the panic subsided.

It’s why I don’t quite buy into the parallels to 2012. Unlike the Dems’ field at this point in ’91, the Republican field already has plenty of candidates. Indeed, the field is probably just about set. Twenty years ago, Dems were asking, “Who do we have other than Tsongas?” Now, Republicans are asking, “Who do we have other than Romney, Pawlenty, Huntsman, Gingrich, Santorum, Bachmann, Ron Paul, Cain, Johnson, Roemer, and Roy Moore?”

It’s not quite the same thing.