In 1992, Republicans wanted to re-elect President George H.W. Bush, who had succeeded Ronald Reagan in 1989.
But they had a problem: Whipping up voter enthusiasm for him.
Bush wasn’t charismatic like Reagan, so he didn’t inspire the intense loyalty Reagan had. He was seen as drab, even wimpy.
George H.W. Bush
Ironically, Bush had performed heroically during World War II.
On August 1, 1944, Bush piloted one of four aircraft that attacked the Japanese installations on Chichijima.
Bush’s aircraft was hit by flak and his engine caught on fire. Despite this, Bush completed his attack and released bombs over his target, scoring several damaging hits.
Reagan, by contrast, spent World War II on a Hollywood sound stage as part of the First Motion Picture Unit, turning out propaganda films to boost civilian morale.
Yet he was seen by millions as a genuine war hero.
Then there was the stalled economy.
Early in his term, Bush faced leftover deficits spawned by the Reagan years. Reagan had given tax-cuts to the rich, bloated the military budget and cut government programs to aid the poor and middle class.
As a result, the deficit had grown by 1990 to $220 billion, three times its size since 1980.
In 1991, many corporations, claiming the need to reorganize, laid off hundreds of thousands of workers, who had believed that their jobs were secure.
By mid-year, the unemployment rate reached 7.8%, the highest since 1984. In September 1992, the Census Bureau reported that 14.2% of all Americans lived in poverty.
Bush’s Democratic challenger in 1992 was Bill Clinton, who had been the Governor of Arkansas from 1979 to 1981 and 1983 to 1992. At 45, Clinton was young, vigorous, and for many evoked memories of an equally young and vigorous John F. Kennedy.
To overcome these disadvantages, Republicans needed a way to generate enthusiasm among their base.
The answer: “Family values.”
Supposedly this meant support for values traditionally learned or reinforced within a family, such as those of high moral standards and discipline.
In reality, it was a Right-wing excuse for the failed economic policies of the Reagan-Bush years.
By citing “a decline in family values,” Bush’s re-election team could blame jobless Americans for their own misery: “If only you had lived up to the high standards set by your Republican superiors, you wouldn’t now be in this position.”
“Family values” carried a sexual subtext as well. Since abortion had became legal in 1973, Republicans had appropriated re-criminalizing it as their pet sex-related issue.
During the Reagan years, Attorney General Edwin Meese had launched a crackdown on pornography. And much of Reagan’s support had come from sexually-obsessed Christian Right evangelists such as Jerry Falwell of the “Moral Majority.”
Thus, a Bush supporter held up a sign reading, “Woody Allen is Clinton’s Adviser on Family Values,” at the 1992 Republican Presidential convention. Allen had recently become notorious for an affair with the adopted stepdaughter of his lover, actress Mia Farrow.
The slogan wasn’t enough to get Bush re-elected. Bill Clinton was elected President.
But “family values” lived on for decades as Republican code language for: “Only Republicans are sexually upright.”
Throughout the eight-year Clinton Presidency, Republicans focused on his longtime reputation as a sex-crazed Rasputin. When the news broke that Clinton had been diddling a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky, Republicans demanded his resignation.
When Clinton refused to resign, they unsuccessfully tried to impeach him.
Meanwhile, they ignored the extramarital affairs of their own members–such as then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gingrich had been boffing a mistress while demanding Clinton’s impeachment for similar adultery.
After Gingrich resigned from the House of Representatives in 1999, his would-be successor, Bob Livingston, was forced to resign from Congress. He had been outed by Hustler publisher Larry Flynt as a serial philanderer.
In 1996, Republicans pushed through Congress the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which defined marriage for federal purposes as the union of one man and one woman. It allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages allowed in other states.
DOMA was advertised as a necessary defense against “predatory homosexuals” who, like vampires, were thought to be preying on innocent heterosexuals.
A major backer of anti-gay legislation was Dennis Hastert, Republican Speaker of the House from 1999 to 1007.
In 2006, Hastert spearheaded a bill to toughen punishments for sex crimes against children.
“We’ve all seen the disturbing headlines about sex offenders and crimes against children,” said Hastert. “Protecting our children from Internet predators and child exploitation enterprises are just as high a priority as securing our border from terrorists.”
On April 29, 2016, a federal judge repeatedly damned Hastert as a “serial child molester” for sexually abusing several boys he coached on the Yorkville High School wrestling team in the 1960s and 1970s.
Having targeted the poor, blacks, Hispanics, women and gays, Republicans are now training their sights on transgenders.
And Target Corporation’s April 19 announcement that its customers could pick the bathroom that “matched their gender identity” gave Republicans a new venue for their attacks on sex-related issues.
There is no known epidemic of transgender attacks on heterosexuals in bathrooms. But Republicans will ride this issue so long as there are citizens willing to believe it.