The man has finally met the moment.
The man? Texas billionaire Ross Perot. The moment? The 2012 presidential race.
Twenty years after Perot almost-sort-of shocked the world by running a viable third-party campaign for president, the time is even more ripe today for the kind of economic-populist, outsider message he embodied.
Ever since Perot earned one in every five votes cast in 1992, talk of forming a legitimate and sustainable third party has been with us. Yet no one has come close to equaling Perot’s success. (Ralph Nader’s role as spoiler in the 2000 election does not come close to counting.)
In this election, a well-funded group of do-gooders known as Americans Elect took a novel approach to channeling third-party energy. Instead of starting with a candidate and building outward, they started by securing a spot on the ballot for an unnamed nominee. Though they got ballot access in more than half of the states, their online convention failed to produce a candidate. Whoops!
But third-party enthusiasts don’t need some impossible, wealthy, hybrid hopeful. They just need Perot.
Perot was a man way ahead of his time. His charts on the danger that our national debt posed, his folksiness, his non-politician credentials — all make him a better fit for the politics of 2012 than those of 1992.
Let’s start with his message. Go back and watch the 30-minute infomercials — funded by his massive wealth and, even then, a decidedly unorthodox strategy in a world of 30-second ads — he ran during the campaign, and you begin to see just how perfectly Perot would fit into our current political environment.
In one infomercial titled, yes, “Chicken Feathers, Deep Voodoo and the American Dream,” Perot uses a series of charts to highlight the ballooning federal debt ($4.1 trillion!), saying: “This is a huge burden for us to bear . . . we can’t pass it on to our children.”
In a more traditional — although that word and Perot don’t really go together — campaign ad, a narrator warned of a new war in which “the enemy is not the red flag of communism but the red ink of our national debt, the red tape of our government bureaucracy.”
Sound familiar? Today it’s de rigueur for politicians in both parties to speak in ominous terms about the danger of the debt, in an unwitting homage to Perot. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), long considered a potential 2012 presidential candidate, gave a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2011 in which he referred to the nation’s debt problem as the “new red menace.” No word on whether Perot got royalties.
In 1992, Perot’s debt message failed to catch on. Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush spent most of the race arguing about which of them was more in touch with the economic struggles of average Americans — a debate almost entirely devoid of talk of the nation’s finances. Of course, in the 20 years since Perot’s candidacy, the debt has quadrupled, and the issue has pushed its way to the center of the conversation.
Beyond his message, the man might also be appealing today. In an election — and a time more broadly in our culture — when being labeled a “politician” is a very bad thing, everything about Perot screams un-politician.
He is short. He has big ears. He has a high-pitched voice with a heavy Texas accent. He also has a deep resume as a successful businessman. Perot founded Electronic Data Systems in the early 1960s and sold it to GM for billions. Then he founded Perot Systems in the 1980s and sold it to Dell for, once more, billions.
If Mitt Romney’s claim to fame in this race is his business bona fides, how could Perot’s larger successes — he is the 91st richest person in the United States, according to Forbes magazine — coupled with his decidedly outsider persona not trump Romney? Plus, being a billionaire is never a bad thing in politics, particularly since Perot would need tons of dough to make sure voters knew that they had another option on Nov. 6.
What does the man himself think of all this? Perot doesn’t talk much to the news media anymore, so I wasn’t able to find out. His exit from the public eye is just one reason, among many, that the 82-year-old is very unlikely to be staging a return to politics.
Dissatisfaction with the two major national parties is raging. In an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll in December, more than one in three people agreed with the statement that “the two-party system is seriously broken, and the country needs a third party.”
Not surprisingly, the fastest-growing political affiliation in the country these days is independent/unaffiliated. Upward of 2.5 million people abandoned the two main parties between the 2008 election and the end of 2011, according to a USA Today analysis of state voter registration. In the 28 states that register voters by party, Democratic registration dipped in 25over that period, while Republican registration dropped in 21.
It would seem that the political environment is even more receptive now than it was in 1992 to what Perot was selling. And he got 19 percent of the vote in that election — even though he dropped out in July and didn’t reenter the race until October.
But while people are sick of the two parties, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they would vote for someone like Perot, or any other third-party candidate. Polling suggests that although almost everyone likes the idea of another choice in elections, when that choice has a name, a face and a series of policy positions, he (or she) is far less appealing.
And that’s a problem for any eccentric billionaires who want to enter politics outside the two-party system, no matter how relevant — or prescient — their message.
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