Vice President Bush's most formidable rival for the 1988 Republican nomination was Senator Robert J. ("Bob") Dole of Kansas. The race was close in the beginning, but well before the nominating convention the vice president had accumulated a winning majority of delegates. At the convention in August he sought to conciliate the Republican right wing by selecting James Danforth ("Dan") Quayle, a young, conservative, and relatively unknown senator from Indiana, as his vice presidential running mate. Democrats and critics in the press ridiculed Quayle as an intellectual lightweight, but over the next four years the vice president emerged as an effective, sharp-tongued battler for conservative causes. The Democrats nominated Michael Dukakis, liberal governor of Massachusetts, and conservative senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas as the vice presidential candidate.
Bush appealed to moderates by promising a "kinder, gentler nation"—an implicit criticism of the abrasive social policies of the Reagan years. He was helped by the apparently healthy state of the economy and the warm afterglow of President Reagan's personal popularity. The broad message of the campaign was, in effect, "If you liked the last eight years, you'll love the next four." The most important theme was Bush's oft-repeated promise: "Read my lips: no new taxes."
A negative theme was the accusation that Governor Dukakis was an extreme liberal ("a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union") and soft on criminals because he supported furloughs from prison for convicts. In a television blitz organized by political adviser Lee Atwater, the Bush campaign focused on the case of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a woman while on a weekend pass from prison in Dukakis' Massachusetts. Horton's picture appeared again and again on television with the implication that Dukakis as president would unleash an army of Willie Hortons on a defenseless public. A third theme was the claim that Bush had the experience to handle foreign policy and threats to national security, an area in which Dukakis was a novice. Dukakis made an unsuccessful attempt to overcome this charge by having himself photographed riding around in a tank.
Bush won the election by the wide margin of 426 to 112 in the electoral college, and 53 percent to 46 percent in the popular vote. He was the first sitting vice president to be elected president since Martin Van Buren in 1836. But Democrats made small gains in Congress, resulting in majorities of 55–45 in the Senate and 260–175 in the House. For his entire term President Bush was faced with Democratic control of both houses of Congress. At the same time, he was constrained from seeking common ground with the Democrats because of his dependence on the growing conservative wing of his own Republican party. Unlike Ronald Reagan, Bush refrained from dramatic appeals to the people against Congress, and chose instead to veto many congressional bills and implement others according to his own interpretation. The result in domestic affairs was four years of acrimony between Congress and the White House and a relatively thin record of legislative achievement.
President Bush's inaugural address called for the United States "to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world." He subtly rebuked the materialism of the Reagan years by saying "we are not the sum of our possessions.. . . We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account. We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend, a loving parent, a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood and town better than he found it." He called for a partnership between the government and lauded the "thousand points of light . . . all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the nation, doing good." The address, however, lacked any specific agenda for domestic affairs.
In foreign affairs Bush rejoiced that "a world refreshed by freedom seems reborn," but emphasized the importance of maintaining the nation's alliances and military strength. He spoke cautiously about the Soviet Union. "Our new relationship in part reflects the triumph of hope and strength over experience. But hope is good. And so is strength. And vigilance."