July 11, 2019


Trump entertained a Reform party run in 2000 himself, and perhaps to satisfy Perot, as well as because of bad advice from consultants, Trump denounced Buchanan at the time. But Trump had the good sense not to seek the nomination of a party whose founder preferred to see it die than have a life after him. Instead, Trump learned from the failures of Perot and the Reform party. Trump, like Perot, campaigned as something of a moderate on social issues — but he did so without excluding social conservatives, and since becoming president he has served his coalition allies better than many a professed true-believer conservative Republican ever did. Trump also realized, as Perot should have recognized a quarter-century earlier, that third-party politics was a waste of time, when the same resources could be used to take over the GOP from within. Republican voters, if not Republican elites, still wanted the party to be that of Nixon and Reagan, not just the Bushes — the party of the Rust Belt and Reagan Democrats, not just the party of Social Security privatizers and military contractors. Trump put the politics of Perot and Buchanan together into a winning force on the right and a winning force in the 2016 election. Whatever happens next year, this has changed American politics in a way that Perot’s symbolic achievement in 1992 never did. Yet if Perot had been more far-sighted in 2000, he might have hastened the populist realignment — and spared the country some of the hardships and disgraces of the last 20 years.

He was a self-made billionaire, a brilliant if eccentric businessman who could have been an equally significant figure in politics — if only he had been willing to treat populism as something more than the private possession of H. Ross Perot.

By siphoning away votes from George H.W. Bush in 1992, Perot’s third party candidacy paved the way for eight years of Bill Clinton, who got cold feet over capturing Osama bin Laden, and massively expanded Jimmy Carter’s Community Reinvestment Act. Both 9/11 and the 2008 economic meltdown were twin hangovers from the Clinton years. In “The Complicated Political Legacy of H. Ross Perot,” Jim Geraghty notes that “Jonah Goldberg [once] wrote that someone could write a good book on how in the short span from 1988 to 1992, Ronald Reagan’s America became Bill Clinton’s America. At least one chapter in that book would have to cover H. Ross Perot, who passed away” on Tuesday:

Back to Jonah’s point, you might think that the time with the biggest interest in candidates outside the major parties would be a time of major crises and national instability. And yet . . . the United States of America in 1992 doesn’t look all that bad at all from the perspective of today. Yes, the country was emerging from a recession, but unemployment peaked at 7.8 percent in June, which looks pretty modest by the standards of the Great Recession. The tech and dot-com booms were just around the corner. The Cold War was over, Kuwait had been liberated from Saddam Hussein, and the United Nations had rarely looked more effective. The worst horrors of the Balkans still lay ahead. Al-Qaeda was just a bunch of unknown guys. North Korea had no nuclear weapons, nor did Iran — nor did India or Pakistan yet. Perot and Bill Clinton lamented that Washington was allegedly paralyzed by gridlock, but the partisanship of that era looks mild compared to today. The legislation passed during Bush’s presidency was pretty substantive.

Depending upon your point of view, Perot and Clinton either tapped into latent American anxiety in the early 1990s, or they convinced Americans that things had gone terribly wrong when in fact things were going okay. As I noted when George H.W. Bush passed away, on the campaign trail, Bill Clinton described a struggling, desperate America:

Unemployed workers who’ve lost not only their jobs but their pensions, their health care, and even their homes. Laid-off defense workers who now make their living driving cabs. Elderly couples whose refrigerators are bare because so much of their monthly Social Security check has to go for prescription drugs. Middle-class families everywhere who’ve taken second jobs to make ends meet.

H. Ross Perot declared in his book, “Unless we take action now, our nation may confront a situation similar to the Great Depression — and maybe even worse.” That looks pretty hyperbolic, considering how the 1990s turned out.

While the economy of the early 1990s looks pretty solid today, there was a genuine fear back then that the stock market crash of 1987 was the harbinger of very bad times to come, one that George H.W. Bush didn’t help by raising taxes in 1990, a year in which he was consumed by foreign policy decisions. A gesture that Bill Clinton repaid by declaring the mild recession of 1991-’92 as “the worst economy in fifty years” and by running to Papa Bush’s right by excoriating him for violating his 1988 “read my lips” pledge. While both Clinton and Perot “convinced Americans that things had gone terribly wrong when in fact things were going okay,” it would take the dot com boom — and a media, with a Democrat in the White House to once again report good economic news, to solidify that belief.

Which remarkably, survived until the fall of 2008.

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