Paul Begala is a political strategist and former chief strategist for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign.
“I’m all ears!” With that self-deprecating one-liner in a debate against President George H.W. Bush and then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, H. Ross Perot defined his 1992 presidential bid.
The line was candy for TV producers seeking a soundbite from the debate, and it not only winningly mocked Perot’s rather large ears but also served as a signal to the country that he was listening to folks the elites had ignored.
Perot, who died Tuesday at age 89, garnered nearly 1 out of 5 votes in that election, despite running against an incumbent president who’d successfully ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and an Arkansas governor who proved to be the one of the most gifted political talents of his time. Why did an eccentric Texas billionaire capture the largest share of the vote of any third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912?
Sure, Perot was quirky, quotable and charismatic. But he was also substantive. His infomercials and his charts were about ideas, not self-aggrandizement. He had a clear, focused message: Stop the North American Free Trade Agreement and balance the budget. He had other issues, including cleaning up corruption in Washington, supporting abortion rights and opposing Bush’s Gulf War. But NAFTA and the deficit were the driving issues of Perot’s candidacy.
After winning the White House, my boss , Clinton, studied the results. Whereas others dismissed Perot as a kook and a flake, Clinton focused not on the man but on the movement. Nineteen million Americans were trying to tell our nation something. Clinton decided he’d better be all ears, too, so he adjusted. He confronted Perot where he felt he had to: on NAFTA. But he also took Perot seriously — so seriously that the White House sent Vice President Al Gore to debate Perot on CNN in November 1993. Gore crushed Perot, and yet the debate itself showed respect to the millions of people who wanted their voices heard. Clinton added side agreements to NAFTA that were designed to protect environmental and labor rights. NAFTA passed because Clinton adapted, and he adapted because he respected Perot’s voters.
On the deficit, Clinton did more than adapt; he refocused. In the 1992 campaign, he pledged to cut the deficit by half in four years. At the time, the promise seemed audacious. But Perot listened to folks who saw the deficit as a Rorschach of everything that was wrong with Washington: buck-passing, blame-assigning and can-kicking. Perot called the deficit “a crazy aunt you keep down in the basement. All the neighbors know she’s there, but nobody talks about her.” Clinton loved that formulation, which I often repeated while doing an impression of Perot.
The combination of Perot’s remarkable performance in the election and the urgent advice of his economic team persuaded Clinton to make deficit reduction a central pillar of his economic plan; indeed, he left his successor a federal budget surplus of $86.4 billion. I am not sure we would have ever balanced the budget without the pressure Perot and his voters brought to the issue.
Perot could have been dismissed because he got no electoral votes (yet another illustration of how the electoral college stands in opposition to the will of the people). And his eccentricities distracted many observers. For crying out loud, the guy accused Bush of having a secret plan to disrupt his daughter’s wedding. Clinton decided that he would ignore the zaniness and instead turn to winning over Perot’s voters.
There is a lesson here for both parties. It is tempting for Democrats to dismiss supporters of President Trump as racists, misogynists or ignoramuses. And it is nearly irresistible to obsess on Trump’s serial scandals and his woeful lack of character. At the same time, too many Republicans show raw contempt for the resurgent left: They personally attack Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), or mock those who are calling for a radical restructuring of an economic system they see as rigged.
That is not the lesson of Ross Perot. However flawed the messenger, however misguided the policy proposal, when millions of people are crying out — in pain, in frustration, in anger — the best response of a leader is to listen. The same is true in real life. As I approach my 30th wedding anniversary, I delight in telling our kids that the secret to a long relationship is three little words. Not “I love you,” but “I hear you.”
If politicians today want to capture the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of Perot’s quixotic, chaotic, hypnotic campaign, the first thing they should do is grow a pair of Perot-sized ears.