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The Lessons of Perot

6 minute read
Stanley W. Cloud/Washington

Election ’92 may have been God’s way of telling Ross Perot he had too much money, but the diminutive Texan with the big ears and the bar charts did win a serious, double-digit share of the vote. The effort cost him more than $60 million — enough to give even a billionaire pause — and he failed to carry a single state. Yet along the way, Perot helped focus and energize the race, and provided lessons for future independent candidates, possibly including himself:

1. Money isn’t everything. The fact that Perot’s candidacy was almost entirely self-financed allowed him to claim he was “owned” by no one but his followers. It turned out there just weren’t enough of them to bring him even close to the victory he kept promising. If he had been just another computer salesman from Dallas with a 1930s haircut and a nasal twang, he probably would never have got his name on the ballot, let alone been admitted to the inner circle of candidates. His money — plus his record as a can-do entrepreneur — gained him that much. But it’s doubtful, given who Perot is and how he chose to run, that any amount of money could have bought him the presidency in 1992.

2. There are no short-cuts. Perot seemed to think all he had to do to win the White House was to grant an occasional interview to Larry King, tape a few commercials and deliver a handful of speeches to captive audiences. To become President, a candidate has to be willing to sweat, to get out of the TV studios and into the streets, to run the entire, terrible gauntlet that presidential campaigns have become. The system by which Americans choose their Presidents may seem irrational and demeaning, with its emphasis on TV and trivia, but no one has yet figured out how to improve on it in this age of weakened political parties. By trying to short-circuit the process, Perot gave the impression that he wasn’t really serious.

3. Don’t whine. Perot had never before been exposed to the kind of scrutiny that comes with a presidential campaign. By repeatedly charging, without evidence, that Republican dirty tricksters were hatching foul plots against him, he diverted attention from the issues he claimed to want to discuss. His bizarre resurrection of an old story about how the North Vietnamese and the Black Panthers had conspired to kill him back in the ’70s also disrupted his campaign, even as it caused people to wonder about his stability. Perot urged the press to check into the behavior of his opponents, but he became petulant when reporters examined his own conduct — such as his penchant for investigating others and his decision to blow up a protected reef near his Bermuda home. By showing that he couldn’t take the heat, Perot convinced most voters that he didn’t belong in the kitchen.

4. Issues matter. Perot spent much of his time blasting his rivals for avoiding the issues, but never fully described his own proposals. In most cases, he insisted that Washington was already littered with good plans; it was just a matter of picking the best ones. When pressed on such matters as health-care reform, he became hopelessly vague. “Only the people, the owners of this country, can make America strong again,” he said, ignoring the need for skillful political leadership. Perot’s one truly specific proposal, a deficit-reduction plan, did call for new taxes on gasoline, cigarettes and some Social Security benefits and Medicare programs. But by thus limiting himself, he became the kind of one-issue candidate Americans have traditionally rejected. Moreover, he didn’t explain how he would get his belt- tightening package past Congress, except to promise to build support for it in electronic “town meetings” — the Massachusetts Bay Colony comes to the media age.

5. Running mates count. Retired vice admiral and former Vietnam POW James Stockdale is a bona fide hero and scholar. What he is not is someone who should be a heartbeat away from the presidency. After his hapless performance in the vice-presidential debate, Stockdale was barely heard from again. That was a blessing. A vice-presidential candidate ought to have at least a nodding acquaintance with the issues voters care about. By choosing Stockdale, Perot did what George Bush couldn’t do: make voters forget their qualms about Dan Quayle.

Despite his shortcomings as a candidate, Perot could take some satisfaction from his first plunge into electoral politics. He demonstrated that Americans are hungry for leadership rooted in common sense and plain speaking. He was on the mark when he said, “If anyone wants to know who’s to blame for the $4 trillion debt, just go look in the mirror.” Voters did not recoil from such lines. On the contrary, Perot’s experience suggests that Clinton and Bush missed an opportunity to use similar outspokenness in order to develop a mandate for bullet-biting reform.

Some experts are writing Perot off as a future political force. Political scientist Nelson Polsby of the University of California, Berkeley, says the Perot campaign was nothing more than “an ego trip by a very superficial person.” Another political scientist, Earl Black of the University of South Carolina, agrees. “Perot,” says Black, “was just an extremely wealthy individual with high visibility who was using his personality and charisma to fuel this movement.”

There is strong evidence, however, that Americans remain frustrated by what they see as the failure of the two-party system to attend to their needs. Democratic political consultant Greg Schneiders, a former aide to Jimmy Carter, predicts that “the high level of unrest and unhappiness, which Perot capitalized on, won’t go away. The right candidate in the right year could come along and perhaps tap into that, even to the point of getting himself elected.” But it would take someone, Schneiders adds, “with all of Perot’s strengths and none of his weaknesses.”

“Time is short,” wrote Perot in his book United We Stand. “History is merciless.” He meant the words to rally the voters to his banner. They didn’t rally. But the words will serve as a warning to Democrats and Republicans alike that they had better begin to solve some of the nation’s critical problems. Otherwise, they may be hearing from Ross Perot — or his like — again.

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