The Fascinating Political Legacy of Ross Perot -- “Sunday Political Brunch” July 14, 2019

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CHARLESTON, W. Va. – It’s always a sad occasion when a well-known figure in the world of politics in my life and career passes away. Whether I liked or voted for a politician, or not, is beside the point. They are people who simply fascinated me along the wild landscape of my 40-plus years covering news and politics. The late Ross Perot fills the bill. Let’s “brunch” on that this week.

“The Perfect Storm” – On one side of the aisle, you had Republican President George H.W. Bush, who at one point in his tenure had the highest approval rating in presidential history. The Cold War had been won, and Saddam Hussein was vanquished. On the other side you had a brash and controversial, yet nationally-inexperienced Governor Bill Clinton (D) Arkansas. But Clinton, a savvy politician, seized on Bush’s declining popularity for breaking the “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge, and an economy that dipped very briefly into recession. The public was ripe and ready for a viable third option.

“Plan C” – Ross Perot was a multi-billionaire Texas businessman, with a solid pro-military resume. He was an outspoken populist, who railed on massive government waste, and a deepening national debt that could crush the economy. He was also no fan of NAFTA, the North American Free-Trade Agreement that Bush and Clinton both supported. Perot believed NAFTA would send good-paying American manufacturing jobs to sub-standard wage countries such as Mexico, Central America, China, and beyond. His stump speech resonated especially in the rapidly declining Rust Belt where factory jobs were already fleeing the U.S.

“The Stage” – Bush and Clinton grew up in politics. It was their lifeblood from an early age. Like many of their ilk, they stuck to consultant and focus-group driven themes and stump speeches. In short, they were canned politicians marketed like soda brands and fast food. Perot was an outlier. Yes, he said wild and wacky things (even quite inaccurate), but he shot from the hip and spoke from the heart and people found his candor refreshing (sound familiar)? If nothing else, he had entertainment value. Over 30-million people would tune in for his half-hour infomercials. He struck a nerve! Even “Saturday Night Live” lampooned him, which is a back-handed compliment and a badge of honor in politics.

“The Tale of the Tape” – At one point early in the race, Perot was leading Bush and Clinton in the national polls, but then he dropped out, believing other polling data showing he could not win in the end. In July 1992, he suddenly dropped out of the race, only to jump back in by October, just one month before the election. In the end, Clinton took 43 percent of the vote, Bush 37 percent and Perot 19 percent. The Electoral College vote was Clinton 370, Bush 168, Perot 0. I’m speculating here, but I think Perot’s indecisiveness – quitting in July, and re-entering in October – proved costly. One thing polls clearly showed as important, is that Americans want leaders to be decisive, as tough as the decisions may be.

“Did Perot Cost Bush the Election?” – I covered that election extensively, before and after, and always believed the, “Perot Cost Bush the Race” theory to be urban legend. My theory was that Clinton supporters were driven by a desire for change, as were many Perot backers. Bush was the status quo candidate. Now, I concur that Perot’s strong military leanings and more conservative economic policy would have sent a significant number of voters to Bush, but they would be outweighed by the “change” voters who slid to Clinton. Do the math. Bush would have needed to attract 14 percent more of the total vote to hit 51 percent of the electorate in a two-person race. Clinton needed to garner only 8 percent more.

“Food for Thought” – I have always felt in the minority in my opinion on 1992. My conservative friends (and even a lot of Democrat friends) have firmly believed over the years that Perot torpedoed Bush. But in researching this week’s column I found a fascinating video that bolstered my opinion (which was already formed back in 1992). FiveThirtyEight research has produced a fascinating film: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-ross-perot-myth/. I encourage you to watch it!

“The Final Countdown” – The Nate Silver mini-documentary cites an exit-poll study in 1992 by Voter Research and Surveys. It says Bush and Clinton would have split the Perot vote with 38 percent each, but that 24 percent of Perot supporters would have simply stayed home. If true the popular vote would have been 52.5 percent for Clinton, 46.5 percent for Bush. Even with Perot in the race Clinton won a 370 vote Electoral College landslide, a tough margin for Bush to overcome.

“Ross Perot and Me!” – I covered Ross Perot’s race for president in 1992 and his second attempt in 1996, but I only actually met and spoke with him once. In the summer of 1993, I was working as a Congressional Fellow and Legislative Assistant to U.S. Senator Herb Kohl (D) Wisconsin. President Bill Clinton was now in office, but NAFTA was being debated in Congress and Ross Perot still had a lot of fight. He came to lobby Sen. Kohl to vote no. After the meeting I approached Perot to show him a card my dad had just sent me for my 34th birthday. On the cover was a funny cartoon caricature of Perot that said, “I don’t care if you are a Republican or Democrat, just go have a Happy Birthday!!!” Inside another Perot cartoon read, “Besides, who needs a party anyway?” He loved it, laughed and then autographed it! I’ll treasure the memory forever!

Do you have thoughts on the life and legacy of Ross Perot? Just click the comment button!

Mark Curtis, Ed.D., is Chief Political Reporter for the five Nexstar Media TV stations serving West Virginia, its five surrounding states and most of the Washington, D.C. media market. He is a National Contributing Political Writer for the White House Patch at www.Patch.com.

© 2019, Mark Curtis Media, LLC

Photo courtesy: C-SPAN.org

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