Perot Myths

I have an item up at PostPartisan talking about third party candidates, but it also gives me an excuse to try again to debunk the myth that Ross Perot was a strong and effective champion of reducing budget deficits. It ain’t true!

Here’s what got me going. Tom Friedman quotes David Walker, Friedman’s fave prospective 3rd party presidential candidate:

He did three things,” says Walker. “He woke up the American people to the truth about our fiscal situation in clear, concise and compelling terms. He made the presidential debates much more substantive, and he helped to set the next president’s agenda, and, as a result, we made great progress in reducing the deficit from 1993 to 2000. Now we have lost all of that and more.”

None of these three claims are true. First of all, Perot’s campaign began in 1992, but deficit politics totally dominated Washington for a full decade before that. On the third point, I don’t think it’s reasonable to read the record of the Clinton administration and conclude that their deficit focus in 1993 was inspired by Perot; it was, to the contrary, both regular Democratic policy from 1982 on, and shifted to a higher priority because of the all-mighty bond market and concerns about its effect on the economy, not fear of a direct electoral threat from the deficit.

And as for “made the presidential debates much more substantive”: that’s a good laugh. I defy anyone to run through the 1992 presidential debates and find anything substantive in anything Ross Perot said. Here’s a very typical example. I’m sorry it’s long, but I think it’s useful to make the point:

PEROT: Step one, the American people send me up there, the day after election, I’ll get with congressional–we won’t even wait till inauguration, and I’ll ask the president to help and I’ll ask his staff to help me. And we will start putting together teams to put together–to take all the plans that exist and do something with them. Please understand. There are great plans lying all over Washington nobody ever executes. It’s like having a blueprint for a house you never built. You don’t have anywhere to sleep. Now our challenge is to take these things, do something with them. Step one, we want to put America back to work, clean up the small business problem, have one task force at work on that. The second, you’ve got your big companies that are in trouble, including the defense industries–have another one on that. Have a 3rd task force on new industries of the future to make sure we nail those for our country and they don’t wind up in Europe and Asia. Convert from 19th to 21st century capitalism. See, we have an adversarial relationship between government and business. Our international competitors that are cleaning our plate have an intelligent relationship between government and business, and a supportive relationship. Then have another task force on crime because, next to jobs, our people are concerned about their safety. Health care, schools–one on the debt and deficit. And finally in that 90- day period before the inauguration, put together the framework for the town hall and give the American people a Christmas present. Show them by Christmas the first cut at these plans. By the time Congress comes into session to go to work, have those plans ready to go in front of Congress. Then get off to a flying start in ’93 to execute these plans. Now, there are people in this room and people on this stage who’ve been in meetings when I would sit there and say, “Is this the one we’re going to talk about or do something about?” Well, obviously, my orientation is let’s go do it. Now, put together your plans by Christmas, be ready to go when Congress goes, nail these things. Small business–you’ve got to have capital, you’ve got to credit, and many of them need mentors or coaches. And we can create more jobs there in a hurry than any other place.

Remind you of anyone? It’s Herman Cain on every subject other than taxes. No substance at all; elect me, and I’ll come up with something. That’s about it.

Meanwhile, Ross Perot spent the entire campaign ridiculing the budget deal Bush and Congress had made that actually did shrink the deficit, and the then spent the first four Clinton years bashing the 1993 budget which took care of the rest of the job.

On balance, I’d say that Ross Perot did absolutely nothing for deficit reduction, but if pressed I’d say his contribution, if it had any effect, tended to make deficit-cutting harder. There was no good reason for anyone to buy Perot myths twenty years ago, but there’s even less reason now.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.