National Chairman – The Reform Party 1996–1999
May 29, 2012
The year 2012 is the 20th Anniversary of the birth of the campaign for Ross Perot for President of the United States. On the evening of February 20, 1992, Ross Perot appeared on the Larry King Live show and indicated that he was moving close to a decision to become an Independent candidate for President of the United States. His near-announcement set off a sequence of events that resulted in the most significant third-party candidacy since the effort by Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. No one at the time could possibly have anticipated or appreciated the massive outpouring of citizen support that Perot’s announcement would unleash on a political system that was in crisis – not even Ross himself.
That simple initial announcement set off a torrent of phone calls and letters – numbered first in the tens and then in the hundreds of thousands – to the Perot Corporate Headquarters in Dallas; all were from rather ordinary citizens who wanted to join in a genuine effort to reform the politics of the United States. Ross Perot had touched a deep well of anger and anxiety felt by everyday Americans about the growing fiscal failures of the Federal Government. Those who volunteered were a remarkable cross section of people who wanted to take back control of our system for the people who ultimately paid for everything and who had completely lost faith in the ability of the leadership of the two parties to provide the changes that were needed.
The 1992 Presidential campaign of Ross Perot was both remarkable and unprecedented in modern American politics. Perot was the right candidate at the right time for the right set of causes, and his candidacy redefined the direction of American politics. The record is astonishing:
• Perot was centrist, fiercely independent, fiscally conservative, but socially moderate, with the resources required to make his campaign a reality, and he almost single-handedly redefined the direction of the 1992 Presidential election.
• Through largely volunteer efforts, he was able to gain a place on the ballot in all 50 states – an achievement unmatched by any other recent competitive third-party candidate.
• He redefined political communication. Primarily relying on 30-minute infomercials in prime time, where – for the first time – he mostly presented the facts about deficits and debt to the American people – and they listened (and believed) in the tens of millions.
• Through his infomercials, he was able to elevate deficit spending and the growing debt to the number one problem that Americans felt the government had to resolve. The problem of the debt thus became the number one voting issue in 1992 (according to 29 percent of the electorate as measured in the Gallup Poll).
• In the first debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Perot won the debate by the largest margin ever recorded by any candidate participating in Presidential debates (an astonishing 47 per cent of the viewers felt he won the debate).
• When Perot dropped out of the race in June, the effect was to reverse the favorable image of him to an unfavorable one, but in the campaign from September to November, and his success in the debates, his approval rating soared.
• Although in the end, he garnered only 19 percent of the popular vote, according to the exit polls, fully 44 percent of the voters stated that Perot was their first choice for President and he would have won if voters had believed his victory was a real possibility.
Perot lost, but by no means did he disappear from politics. In 1993, he converted his army of campaign volunteers into an organization called, United We Stand, America. Organized to pressure Congress and the White House into taking steps to balance the budget, which would have been for the first time in modern America, the hundreds of thousands who started with Perot in 1992 became the millions who were willing to sign on to his longer-term effort.
That was when we first met Dr. Gordon Black, the primary author of this book on American politics. He was not involved with the campaign until March of 1993 when Perot wanted to conduct a poll on the policy choices that could finally balance the budget; he wanted the poll conducted by a reputable non-partisan researcher. At that time, there were really only three – Louis Harris, who had retired, George Gallup, Jr., who was in the process of selling his company, and Gordon Black, who was the well-known pollster for USA Today.
Gordon Black is many things, all of which eventually resonated with Perot – entrepreneur, businessperson, pollster, academician and scholar, and like Perot himself, a deeply committed man who could articulate the message of political reform.
Perot first approached Dr. Black when our chief legal strategist, Clay Mulford, called Dr. Black in Rochester, New York, to ask him if he would conduct a poll on the issues of the debt and deficits. To our astonishment, Dr. Black initially said no to our request. He told Clay Mulford that he could not work on any poll where the questions were not up to the standards of objective polling, and he doubted that Mr. Perot would permit him the independence to design the poll to those standards. We did not know at the time that Dr. Black had been working independently with others who wanted to establish a new political party to represent the radical middle of the American electorate.
His refusal led to our own reconsideration of what we were trying to accomplish with the poll. We also realized that if the poll did not meet the highest standards for professional polling, people in the media and in politics who understood the science and art of polling and who had an incentive to dismiss its relevance would easily discount it. Clay Mulford called Dr. Black a second time and told him that Ross had agreed with his objection and would provide him with complete freedom to design and execute the kind of poll that would produce authentic results that were accurate and believable.
In this essay (Democracy reborn), for the first time, Dr. Black tells the story of the delivery of those polling results to the senior leadership in Congress and the White House. Dr. Black accomplished this delivery in conjunction with Perot, Mulford, and Sharon Holman, who was Perot’s Press Secretary at that point. It is a fascinating story about American politics, but I was not present, so I will defer to Gordon to tell it.
We are now twenty years later, after that massive effort, and it’s worthwhile to assess what we accomplished through a decade of effort. Perhaps the single most important thing is that the budget got balanced for the first time in modern history, producing surpluses that were well on their way to paying down the national debt until two wars and massive tax cuts stopped the process completely. We have to be a little careful here, the Clinton ‘balanced’ budgets of 98, 99, and 2000 still added to our accumulated national debt each year because the ‘surplus’ paid into Social Security’ was ‘borrowed’ and used by the Federal government to pay for current general operating expenses. Furthermore, as Ross explained back then, it was just a temporary fix and deficits would undoubtedly skyrocket again. Even Clinton’s budget projections showed the deficit skyrocketing when certain delayed spending, temporary spending cuts, and tax increases expired.
While Clinton made a better effort to balance the budget than anyone else did before him, it wasn’t truly balanced and it was only expected to be short-term. Although headed in the right direction, Clinton’s version of the balanced budget would not have paid down any significant part of the national debt.
How we managed to generate surpluses in American history is a matter of great controversy among economists representing each partisan side of the debate – and that is part of our modern problem of understanding anything in contemporary American politics. The facts are not in dispute. The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 raised taxes, mostly on the top 1.2 percent of the wage earners, and these increases generated a steady increase in revenues without any tangible evidence that it undermined the economy. Virtually all of the Republicans in Congress opposed this tax increase, but it passed when the Democrats still controlled both Houses and President Clinton signed it into law. Perot actively supported increased taxes on the wealthy, a support he manifested continuously and communicated effectively to both Congress and the American people and a commitment shared by many of America’s most successful entrepreneurs like Warren Buffet.
Next, through cooperation with the Republicans, Clinton managed an historic overhaul of the Federal Welfare System in the Historic Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, when he signed it into law in August of 1996. Although a majority of the Democrats in both houses voted against it, this effort was essentially bipartisan in nature. This act was part of a larger effort by the Clinton Administration to limit spending increases, particularly for defense; spending only increased by 2.9 percent during the period, while the economy was growing at a robust rate, generating new jobs and new income.
The economists in the pay of the two political parties interpret these events very differently, and you can be sure that none of them gave Ross Perot any credit at all. However, the actions taken are exactly what Perot was advocating and promoting, both before Congress and on national television, and they produced exactly the effect he foresaw. Therefore, I guess you will have to decide for yourself what he accomplished, but it is hard for me to imagine a balanced budget without his direct intervention.
Beyond this, our longer-term accomplishments were few indeed. The “fix” that Perot and our army of supporters engineered was not a permanent solution and the two major parties collectively kept Perot out of the 1996 debates, which effectively denied the voters a direct comparison between him and the other candidates. The volunteer enthusiasm that persisted so long eventually dissipated, and we returned to politics as usual – two political parties composed of entrenched incumbents, financed by special interests, all willing to sell American down the river for their own benefit. This is sad, but true! The anger that Americans felt in 1992 has grown even greater, and that is along with a sense of decline, doom, and gloom that is unique in American history, other than perhaps the Great Depression.
Dr. Black’s essay (Democracy Reborn) correctly points to the underlying causes of our democratic failures, and he tells you, rather precisely, what we must fix if we are to avoid the seemingly inevitable decline of our place in the world. The “causes” he identifies are not the ones that many of you think about, and that is part of the problem. Will we have the courage and strength of our convictions to make the requisite changes? Frankly, I don’t know! He most certainly provides a vision of the possible. However, will we find the leadership among us able to deliver that vision? Again, I don’t know. Personally, I think it will require a modern version of Ross Perot, a man or women with the financial means to finance the vision by arousing the somnolent center into action, but will that leader have the proper vision to see what must be accomplished? Again, I apologize – but I don’t know.
What I do know with certainly, is that we will not restore our growth, competitive electoral choice, political dynamism, direction and most important – the American Dream – unless we substantially reform the rules of the electoral game – getting the special interest dollars out of our elections permanently and restoring real choice to the voters who deserve it. In a way, the choice is really up to you, the voters.
But, given the voters quiescence in the face of massive corruption, perhaps you genuinely enjoy voting in elections where the incumbents have all of the money and the challengers nothing at all – in districts that have been deliberately rigged through sophisticated gerrymandering to make it very difficult to dislodge an incumbent. But, if you do, you have nothing whatsoever in common with the millions of men and women down through our history who fought and died to preserve our democratic rights.
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