Steve Kornacki: The War That Made Bill Clinton resident

Roundup: Talking About History

[Steve Kornacki is Salon's news editor.]

The Gulf War that began 20 years ago this past week ended with America's political class in nearly universal agreement on one point: The Democrats were screwed in 1992.

In the months before the war, as he'd dispatched hundreds of thousands of troops to the Persian Gulf in response to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, there had been widespread fear among Americans that President George H.W. Bush was leading them into another Vietnam. But as wars go, Operation Desert Storm proved surprisingly tidy: The verdict was quick and decisive and American casualties were low. It was everything Vietnam hadn't been, and when Bush declared a cease-fire on Feb. 28, a months-long national celebration ensued, complete with parades, prime-time television specials -- and, of course, soaring popularity for the commander in chief, whose leadership was hailed by even his harshest critics.

It was in this climate that Bush, his approval ratings edging over 90 percent in some polls, was branded a shoo-in for reelection in '92. Sure, he'd gone back on his "no new taxes" pledge the year before, and yes, the economy was clearly in recession, but none of this mattered anymore: Even Harry Truman after the Japanese surrender hadn't enjoyed Bush's standing with his fellow countrymen, and it was simply inconceivable that they might turn around and give him the boot 20 months later -- especially when almost every Democrat being mentioned as a potential candidate had been against the war. One poll matched Bush against the man widely considered the Democrats' best bet for '92, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, in a trial heat: Bush came out on top ... by 62 points.

"Large problems and small bedevil the Democrats," the Washington Post's Mary McGrory wrote in mid-March. "They are fairly resigned to the idea that the 1992 presidential election was decided during Operation Desert Storm, and they realize they may not get the sand out of their shoes until Thanksgiving, if then."...

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