If you look at the legacy of the Texas billionaire and Naval Academy grad Ross Perot, who died on Tuesday, it isn’t surprising that one of his last political acts was to write donation checks to the Trump campaign for the max allowed by law. The man knew what he’d started and where it had led.
It must have done him good since 2016 to watch Trump in office, as many of the populist ideas he championed, like an end to NAFTA, were implemented by the president. But if we turn the clock back to 1992, Perot’s first and most important run for the presidency, it was a different story. At least tactically and strategically.
Coming off 90-percent approval ratings after his victory in Desert Storm, George H.W. Bush looked unbeatable the year before. However, Perot and the Dems knew that Bush had only won the first time because he was Reagan’s veep. The voters were really voting for a Reagan third term. What they got was far from it.
Bush embraced a stable and risk-adverse domestic agenda and tried hard to seem bland abroad. He did that so much so that he even told the Ukrainians to calm down and listen to the meddling on the downslide Russians in the infamous “Chicken Kiev” speech. This was not the heroic conservatism that Republicans knew from Reagan. This was warmed-over DC establishment tripe. Add to that the broken promise on no new taxes and there was going to be a populist backlash against the incumbent president.
After Pat Buchanan tried an insurrection and failed in the 1992 GOP primaries, Perot took the stage as an independent candidate and decided the presidency.
Just as an independent candidacy today from the left would split the anti-Trump vote and guarantee Trump’s reelection, Perot’s populist campaign split the conservative vote and ensured Bush’s political demise. Yes, Perot had a wacky presentation style amusingly parodied by Dana Carvey on “Saturday Night Live.” Sure, he sometimes told a strange story about ninjas or some such thing attacking his daughter’s wedding. But as conservative voters have proven, personal idiosyncrasies matter less to them than ideas and follow-through.
Perot never got the chance to follow through, as he made Bill Clinton’s election a sure thing by taking almost 19 percent, most of that being off of a potential Bush vote. Bill Clinton thus won in 1992 with only 42 percent of the vote, but with a convincing 370 in the Electoral College. Since 1912, no one had submarined a GOP incumbent as Perot did. Love that and him or not, because of that run Perot became a man of historical consequence.
His populist conservative base lay dormant for a small bit, only to awaken mightily in the 1994 GOP congressional landslide and in later years as the Tea Party. It survives and thrives today in the White House and in the modern GOP base. It seems Perot may have won in the final analysis.
Not bad, sailor. Not bad at all.