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Ross Perot the Fickle Populist

Stop me if you’ve already heard this one: An erratic billionaire ran for president, railing against bad trade deals and promising to run the federal government like a business, and unexpectedly shot to the top of the polls.

Before Donald Trump, there was Ross Perot. The similarities are obvious. Both campaigned against NAFTA and other free trade agreements as a threat to American jobs and sovereignty. Both touted their managerial prowess as a qualification for the presidency, with the Oval Office as their boardroom. Both were eminently quotable, with Perot musing about the “giant sucking sound” of jobs headed to Mexico and the massive federal borrowing as “the crazy aunt in the basement.”

Their differences were equally clear. Pace Dick Cheney, Perot believed deficits do matter. Instead of relying on free media due to his celebrity, he paid for infomercials in which he brandished charts documenting the growth of the national debt, then around $4 trillion (it would take a level of austerity not seen since Calvin Coolidge to approach that figure today). Perot was willing to cut entitlement spending to help balance the budget.

In 1992, Perot stitched together the concerns of several of the year’s major party presidential campaigns: Paul Tsongas, the socially liberal deficit hawk who sought the Democratic nomination running to Bill Clinton’s right; Jerry Brown, the California populist progressive who ran to Clinton’s left; and Pat Buchanan, the populist conservative (and co-founder of this magazine) who ran to President George H.W. Bush’s right in the Republican primaries. 

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Perot’s 19 percent of the vote was an early indicator of the deep discontent with the bipartisan political class in Washington. He might have done even better had he not briefly dropped out of the presidential race, saying Clinton (then in third place nationally) had revitalized the Democratic Party and that Republicans had conspired to disrupt his daughter’s wedding. But he returned to the contest by the fall and rebounded with commanding performances in the debates. The major parties did not repeat their mistake of allowing him to participate again four years later, when Perot still won 8 percent.

The irascible Texas businessman did get to debate, with less success [1], Vice President Al Gore on the merits of NAFTA. He worked with Buchanan, Howard Phillips, Jesse Jackson and others in a left-right coalition against that pact and later U.S. participation in the World Trade Organization via GATT. He was as tireless an advocate for veterans as he was a growing skeptic of foreign wars, starting (again alongside Buchanan) with the 1991 Gulf War. 

Buchanan and Perot also together showed that the GOP of Bush 41 and Bob Dole consisted of the religious right and country-club Republicans eyeing each other warily with much of Middle America on the sidelines, a situation Trump would years later at least temporarily rectify. Then in 1999, Buchanan and Trump were briefly rivals for the presidential nomination of Perot’s Reform Party.

Yet Perot failed to support either of them. His presidential ambitions over, he had lost control of his creation to Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler had managed to beat a Democrat and Republican—Hubert Humprhey’s son and eventual senator Norm Coleman, respectively—in a three-way race in 1998. A major coup for a fledgling third party, Perot wanted nothing to do with Ventura.

There were some policy disagreements between the two—Ventura favored more open trade and immigration than did Perot—but their main differences were stylistic rather than ideological. Jesse “The Body” was vulgar and theatrical, Perot more straitlaced. When George W. Bush looked unbeatable in the run-up to the 2000 Republican primaries, the faction of the Reform Party loyal to Perot recruited Buchanan to seek its nomination instead. An infusion of Buchanan brigade blood would help the Perotistas regain control of the party.

After a flirtation with Republican-turned-independent former senator and governor Lowell Weicker, Ventura recruited Trump to run against Buchanan. It could have been a race as interesting as either of the major party contests, but it soon degenerated into a mess. Trump smeared Buchanan using language similar to that which would later be deployed against him. 

Once Buchanan’s supporters helped them depose the Ventura-aligned party chairman, the Perot faction promptly turned on him. The Buchanan camp was not altogether unprepared—Perot had similarly lured Richard Lamm, the former Democratic governor of Colorado, into the Reform Party four years earlier only to wrest the presidential nomination away from him—but things soon took a sharp turn toward the bizarre.

Trump bowed out of the race, though not before supplying most of the soundbites GOP Never Trumpers would later cite as examples of his covert liberalism. The Perot bloc settled on a fringe candidate John O’Sullivan described as “one of the very few physicists who believes he can fly” as their Buchanan alternative. Buchanan won the nomination in the end but the internal battles were costly. Ventura left the party, even though as a sitting governor he was its greatest success story.

Perot never publicly explained himself. Some speculated he disliked Buchanan’s social conservatism, which he manifestly did not share, gaining a foothold in the Reform Party. Tom Pauken’s theory [2] that Perot was shaken by the controversy surrounding Buchanan’s book A Republic, Not An Empire is also plausible. 

The company Perot built continues under new ownership and management. The same could be said for his political movement, except he resisted the transition.

W. James Antle III is the editor of The American Conservative.