THE BLOG
01/26/2016 01:43 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2017

Dale Bumpers: The Man Who Could Have Been Elected President

U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers (D-AR), who served from 1975-1999, recently died. Bumpers had flirted with a bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination three times, but ultimately chose not to seek the nomination. Had he run in 1988, Bumpers would have been a good bet to win the nomination and ultimately the Presidency.

Bumpers was a rare breed in American politics. He was a Southern Progressive who could garner the support of liberals, moderates and conservatives in his party. Elected Governor of Arkansas in 1970, then elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974, Bumpers represented a new voice in Southern politics, a voice which opposed racial segregation.

He was also a spellbinding orator, having honed his skills as a lawyer in Charleston, Arkansas. He lost just two cases in his 15-year practice. In 1954, as the only lawyer in Charleston, Bumpers advised the Board of Education to comply with the Supreme Court ruling ordering public schools to desegregate. The Charleston School District became the first district in the entire South to unshackle the chains of segregation.

The longest serving Governor in Arkansas history was Orval Fabus. He had retired in 1967 after serving for twelve years as Governor of the state. Fabus had left an indelible stain on the state by ordering the Arkansas National Guard to halt African-Americans from entering Little Rock Central High School. Fabus defied the Court's order to desegregate. In 1970, Fabus made a bid to get his old job back, but was defeated by Bumpers, who then went on to defeat incumbent Republican Governor Winthrop Rockefeller in the General Election, capturing a whopping 61.7% of the vote.

Bumpers ushered in a more progressive era as Governor. He accrued accomplishments he could have showcased had he been a Presidential candidate, including reforming state government and raising teacher salaries. In addition, Bumpers left the state with a budget surplus. A 1998 survey ranked Bumpers as the best Governor in Arkansas history. His job approval rating reached a stratospheric 91%.

In 1974, the popular Governor Bumpers upended U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright in Fulbright's re-election bid in the Democratic Primary. Fulbright had first been elected to the Senate in 1944. He became nationally known for his role as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. While some in Arkansas came to see Fulbright as abandoning parochial concerns, Bumpers' raw political talent was coming into focus in the state and also within national Democratic circles. Fulbright accused Bumpers of trying to be elected to the Senate as a "stepping stone to the Presidency." Bumpers' resounding defeat of Fulbright gave him the distinction of being the only challenger to defeat an incumbent U.S. Senator in a primary race that year.

For his victory over Fabus, Rockefeller, and Fulbright, The New York Times dubbed Bumpers: "The Giant Killer."

The stars were aligned for Bumpers in 1988. If he had chosen to run for President, Bumpers could have presented himself as a true proponent of fiscal austerity. He inoculated himself from the aeonian charges leveled against Democrats for being tax-and-spend liberals. While Bumpers voted against the tax cuts signed by Republican President Ronald Reagan, he was one of just three Senators to also vote against Reagan's' proposed spending cuts.

While other Southern Democratic Senators like U.S. Senators J. Bennett Johnson (D-LA), Howell Heflin (D-AL), and Sam Nunn (D-GA), sported voting records too conservative for a Democratic electorate, Bumpers was in the mainstream of the party with a center-left voting record. He could appeal to the party's progressive bloodline with his advocacy of arms control, abortion rights, and gun control. In addition, Bumpers could trumpet having been an early Southern advocate for Civil Rights for African-Americans. Bumpers earned the electorally advantageous moniker "the Northerner's favorite Southerner."

Despite being a progressive in a conservative state, Bumpers was a proven electoral vote-getter, having just proved his electoral bone fides and popularity in 1986 by being re-elected in a landslide. U.S. Senator Paul Simon (D-IL), who eventually ran himself that year, called Bumpers "the most electable of Democratic hopefuls. He combines conviction . . . and a good speaking style. He conveys compassion. People want to have a (candidate) with a really visceral belief in things."

While contemplating a run, Bumpers met with many Democratic well-healed benefactors in New York City who came away impressed. Investment banker Bob Schiffer stated at the time: "if competence is going to be the issue of 1988, Dale Bumpers has to be number one when you look at Democrats. We could raise a million dollars for him in New York."

The 1988 Presidential election cycle was one which historically would have favored the Democrats, the out-party. The Republican nominee was Vice President George H.W. Bush. No incumbent Vice President had won the Presidency since Martin Van Buren in 1836. Moreover, the incumbent President Ronald Reagan had seen his job approval ratings sink to 47% in late 1987, but then rise steadily in 1988.

There was a clear hankering within the American electorate for a change, as evinced by that year's Democratic Presidential nominee, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who harbored a 17-point lead over Bush at one point during the summer of 1988. However, Dukakis could not overcome the narrative promoted by the Bush campaign that he was "that liberal Governor from Massachusetts."

Bumpers was an atypical Southern politician. He was popular enough with liberal primary voters to muster his party's nomination. In a General Election, he would have been the worst nightmare for Bush. It would have been nearly impossible to envisage a scenario where Bumpers would have succumbed to the "elitist charge" that was successfully leveled against Dukakis. He was a Marine Veteran who hailed from humble circumstances and once owned a 350-acre Angus cattle ranch. Bumpers was enormously popular in a conservative state where Republican Ronald Reagan had won re-election as President with 60.47% of the vote in 1984. In addition, he was arguably the best speaker and retail campaigner the Democrats could have offered up.

Bumpers seemed to know the political landscape that year. He averred: "There's not any big trick in defining the issues for 1988. Many of the candidates will be saying essentially the same things about how to deal with them. What will be important is trying to demonstrate the kind of aura or personality people want to lead them through the minefields."

Bumpers is the epitome of the candidate who could have been President but who chose not enter the Presidential sweepstakes. He was the best candidate on paper, earning the praises of voters in a conservative state. He would also appeal to voters across the political spectrum, and as was aforementioned, was arguably the best speaker within his party. This oratorical prowess was showcased after he left the Senate in 1999 when President Bill Clinton persuaded him to come back to Washington D.C. to deliver an address to the Senate opposing his potential conviction for his role in the Monica Lewinsky episode.