Alternative History

With the 1988 election wide open as a result of the Iran-Contra scandal, a large number of Democrats sought the nomination, including Senators Gary Hart (Colorado), Paul Simon (Illinois), Joe Biden (Delaware), and Albert Gore Jr. (Tennessee), along with Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. The most popular Democrat of his day, New York Governor Mario Cuomo, entered the contest late (sensing the vulnerability of the Republican ticket after 8 years of Republican control of the White House) and quickly won the support of the voters. He went on to win the nomination. Dukakis was runner up to Cuomo, but the latter surprisingly selected the young Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, as his running mate, creating an instantly attractive ticket based on the premise of "change." The Democrat's counterpart was Vice-President Robert Dole and his running mate, Congressman Jack Kemp of New York. In the end, the Cuomo-Clinton ticket won the election with 51% of the vote to Dole-Kemp's 46%. Thus ended eight years of Republican control of the White House, in a context of voter hope as a result of the clear turning point in East-West relations. Cuomo also relied on widespread support from Catholic voters, becoming the first Catholic President since John F. Kennedy (and the first Italian-American).

The main challenge to the new administration was the state of the U.S. economy, which entered recession in 1989 as a result, among others, of a large federal deficit created by Bush's increases in military spending. Cuomo's "honeymoon" period was therefore rather short-lived, and his own testy relationship with some members of the media did not help him. Then the administration became involved in a couple of high-profile foreign policy crises which led to massive U.S. interventions. The first occurred in Panama in December 1989, when the moralistic and Wilson-like Cuomo ordered troops into Panama to apprehend the narcotics-tainted dictator Manuel Noriega and restore democracy in that country. Cuomo promised, and delivered, a quick withdrawal of U.S. forces. In 1990-91, Cuomo became involved in the U.N.-led effort to oust Iraq from Kuwait (it had invaded it in August, 1990), although with some misgivings. Cuomo let Margaret Thatcher lead the coalition and made it clear that the U.S. was only one of a number of countries participating in the mission, which also had a quick exit strategy, after the restoration of Kuwait had been achieved. These actions earned Cuomo some short-term domestic support (as did the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, both of which happened under his watch) but it was not enough to offset worries about the slumping economy. By late 1991, all poll numbers indicated that the administration was in serious trouble. Many saw Cuomo as aloof, professorial, and often pedantic -- not quite in touch with the attitudes and concerns of the average voter.

In December 1991, right after the announcement of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Cuomo shocked the nation when he announced his surprise decision not to seek renomination to a second term in favor of his young Vice-President, Bill Clinton. he stated: "I would remain in office, despite its rigors and the express wishes of my family, were I convinced that only my permanence in office could secure the advancement of goals I hold dear, and which I wish to see implented to the benefit of our nation. However, that is not the case. I am convinced Vice-President Clinton is as well suited as I am to carry on those much-needed reforms, and in some instances may be better suited than I am to do so. I am convinced he will win the upcoming election and will reinvigorate our party and government. Therefore, I will not seek, nort accept, the nomination of the Democratic Party to serve another term as President of this great Republic."

The country was immediately thrown into an electoral frenzy, with Clinton pitted against the equally charismatic Congressman Jack Kemp, the Republican front runner. Clinton and Kemp went on to win their respective parties' nominations, with Clinton's attractiveness and political skills managing to turn the polls around in the Democrat's favor, although narrowly. During the campaign, Clinton announced his intention, if elected, to extend to President Cuomo, at the earliest convenience, an appointment to serve in the U.S. Supreme Court. Consulted on the matter, Cuomo was evasive, but nonetheless let it be known that he would seriously consider the offer, always in the name of "advancing the causes I and the majority of our country hold dear." Justice Thurgood Marshall, in turn, confirmed his intention to resign "at some point during the next few months" and made clear his pelasure at the prospect of Cuomo inheriting his seat. The Republicans -- led by Jack Kemp his running mate, Richard Cheney -- denounced the Clinton-Cuomo-Marshall entente at a sinister plan involving unspecified "horse-trading" and sordid quid-pro-quos. This accusation, however, had only a limited effect on the electoral campaign, with both Clinton and Cuomo stating that the Supreme Court appointment was only an idea, and remain to be seen whether it could be carried out -- or indeed, if Cuomo would definititively accept the offer should it be extended.

The unpopular Cuomo's gamble in retiring (to serve, as it turned out) in the U.S. Supreme Court after only one term as President paid off when when his younger and more energetic Vice-President, well complemented by his running mate Al Gore, won the November election with 45% of the vote to Kemp-Cheney's 41%. By then the country had recovered from the 1989-1991 recession and the Democratic administration benefited from the entrance of Ross Perot as a third-party candidate (he got 13% of the vote). Perot had siphoned more votes away from Kemp-Cheney rather than from Clinton-Gore, making possible the almost miraculous recovery of a Democratic administration that seemed all but beaten in 1991.

Key members of the one-term Cuomo administration were:

  • Secretary of State Warren Christopher (1989-93)
  • Secretary of Defense Sam Nunn (1989-93)
  • Attorney General Rudolph Giuliani (1989-93)
  • Secretary of Education: Richard Riley (1989-93)

See also