President Bush always intended to run for a second term and in 1992 faced only one challenger for the nomination—the ultraconservative political commentator and onetime Nixon and Reagan aide, Patrick ("Pat") Buchanan. Although Buchanan gave Bush a scare in the early New Hampshire primary by winning 37.4 percent of the vote, he soon faded. By April 1992 Bush's renomination was locked up. The press did speculate about whether Quayle would be "dumped" from the ticket but Bush stood by his vice president both out of loyalty and as a gesture toward conservative Republicans. Buchanan, however, regained national attention with a ferocious speech at the Republican convention in August, a virtual declaration of war against political and cultural liberals and moderates. Bush's apparent acceptance of Buchanan's extremism may have cost him votes in the November election.
Meanwhile, the Democrats picked Bill Clinton, the youthful governor of Arkansas, and the equally young Albert ("Al") Gore, Jr., senator from Tennessee, as his vice presidential running mate. Businessman Ross Perot, the wealthy and idiosyncratic independent candidate, inspired an enthusiastic band of followers with his call for a simpler, smaller government. Perot never had a chance of winning the election but he received 19 percent of the vote, more at the expense of Bush than Clinton. Had Perot not been running, the contest would have been close, but Clinton would probably still have won.
Clinton's advantage and Bush's liability was the sluggish state of the economy and the perception among disaffected voters, especially traditional Democrats who had voted for Reagan, that Bush did not have a clue about how to stem the deficit and create new jobs. Clinton strategist James Carville defined the key issue of the campaign as "the economy, stupid." Public opinion polling confirmed Carville's analysis. When asked what was the most important issue, most people said the economy and unemployment or the cost of health care; only 6 percent said foreign policy. Bush's championing of NAFTA lost support among workers fearing for their jobs (many of whom probably voted for Perot) and his enthusiasm for a cut in the capital gains tax made him vulnerable among middle- and lower-income voters to the charge that he was the candidate of the rich.
Bush suffered other liabilities. Ironically, the success in foreign policy deprived him of an asset. No longer could he, as in 1988, win votes by pointing to his long experience in foreign and national security affairs. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yeltsin's Russia in disarray and the United States avoiding involvement in the civil war in Bosnia, Clinton's foreign policy inexperience did not help Bush the way the inexperience of Dukakis had in 1988. Also, Bush's embrace of a conservative social agenda alienated voters who believed that a woman's right to a legal abortion must be protected.
The election results were devastating. Bush received only 37.4 percent of the vote against 43 percent for Clinton. In the electoral college it was 370 (thirty-two states) for Clinton and 168 (eighteen states) for Bush. Perot received no electoral votes. Democrats retained control of both houses of Congress. Bush was deeply hurt politically, but he pressed on in office, showing a remarkable burst of energy in the "lame-duck" eleven weeks before Clinton's inauguration in January 1993.
On 4 December 1992 Bush ordered the second largest military operation of his presidency, the humanitarian intervention in Somalia to end mass starvation. Drought-plagued Somalia, located on the northeast coast of Africa, was in a state of anarchy as disorganized armed groups terrorized the population, looted relief supplies, and endangered the lives of civilian relief workers. Worldwide television carried excruciating pictures of the suffering. Bush acted. He sent 28,000 American troops to protect the relief efforts and bring food to the starving. President-elect Clinton, Congress, and the American people agreed it was the right thing to do.
Also during his final weeks Bush joined Russian president Yeltsin in proposing additional major reductions in strategic nuclear arms. And on Christmas Eve 1992 he pardoned six Reagan administration officials charged with misleading Congress during the Iran-Contra affair. They were former secretary of defense Caspar W. Weinberger, former assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs Elliott Abrams, former national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane, and three officials of the Central Intelligence Agency.
George and Barbara Bush returned to Houston, Texas, the day of Clinton's inauguration. Bush chose to be a low-profile ex-president, refusing numerous speaking engagements and making few public pronouncements. The conservative wing of the Republican party blamed him for Clinton's victory and did not invite him to play a prominent role in party affairs. When the Republicans won control of both houses of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, something they had been unable to do while Bush was president, Bush's name was never mentioned as having contributed to the victory. No one urged him to seek the 1996 Republican nomination and none of the contenders sought his endorsement. Like Gorbachev in Russia, George Bush was no longer a player in high politics.