Perot, Back On the Charts
Sixteen years after he shook up American politics by launching an impromptu campaign for president, Ross Perot is about to dip a toe back into the public debates. And, yes, he's bringing his charts with him to make his point.
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"We are right at the edge of the cliff," the voice with the unmistakable Texas twang informed me when I called him the other day to find out about this latest venture. "We can't go on spending money we don't have."
That is not a new theme for Perot. It was his core message when he did his on-again, off-again, then back-on-again race against George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in 1992. He led the field in the early months and, even after the confusing signals sent by his dropping out and coming back, he won more than 19.7 million votes -- almost 20 percent of the total.
His real triumph, however, was a policy victory. With simple charts that he designed and displayed on prime-time television "infomercials," he managed to convey to millions of voters the stark reality of what the record deficits of the 1980s really meant.
It may well have been the first and only time that the abstraction of an out-of-kilter budget was communicated outside the boardroom or the economics classroom. People got it. A Post poll taken in October 1992, at the height of Perot's public information campaign, found that 63 percent of those surveyed said they worried a great deal that the federal budget deficit would grow, and an additional 17 percent said it worried them a good amount.
The newly elected Clinton took note and, prompted by Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and other economists, abandoned his campaign promise of middle-class tax cuts and instead made his priority cutting the budget deficit. Within a few years, we had a brief and blessed run of balanced budgets.
But with the current president, deficits have returned with a vengeance -- and no one seems to care. Current polls show that fewer than 1 percent of the voters call the budget deficit one of the country's major problems.
Part of the reason is that politicians of both parties are laboring to disguise the reality from public view. Both President Bush and the Democratic Congress have issued budgets this year that claim to achieve balance in 2012 -- just four years from now.
But those budgets are based on blue-sky assumptions that have no grounding in the real world. When I asked Perot what he made of them, he replied, "It's an election year. What would you expect them to say?"
In recent weeks, when I have found myself in conversations with former comptroller general David Walker and other economists who know how grim the long-term budget picture really is, I have mused aloud, "We need Ross Perot back." Turns out, he was quietly preparing his return. He took some of the basic work done by Walker and others and had professionals turn it into 35 very clear charts and link them on a Web site with an equally simple narration.
Sadly, Perot hired a professional announcer rather than read the text in his own distinctive Texas way, but he told me he's willing to substitute himself -- which would make it a lot less pedantic and a lot livelier. With a personal investment of some $300,000, Perot has built a real teaching tool.
Perot is not offering any solutions. But he is clearly pointing to what he says are the culprits, the big entitlements -- Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. As the narrator puts it with the first of the charts: "The United States faces large and growing budget deficits mostly due to an aging population and rising health-care costs. Unless we solve the problems caused by entitlement spending, there will be little money left to do anything else in the future. Over time, our standard of living, our national security, our standing in the world and the value of our currency could all be threatened. The sooner we confront these issues, the better."
So far, John McCain and Barack Obama are not doing that. Perot, now almost 78, says he has no desire to get back into politics. But he's doing a service by unleashing his favorite weapon: those charts.