A billionaire businessman and political outsider ran for office against the establishments of both parties. He promised to bring jobs back to the United States, renegotiate trade agreements, and restore the American worker’s voice in government.
No, I am not talking about — in this case — President Donald J. Trump. I am talking about Ross Perot, who passed away on July 9 at the age of 89.
Looking back, Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign seems even more improbable. Besides the occasional policy and political activity that all persons of wealth and influence find themselves sometimes engaging in, he was a complete political novice. He had no campaign infrastructure and faced both a successful incumbent Republican President and a youthful and charismatic middle-of-the-road Democratic contender.
Yet he spoke to something that rang with the hearts and souls of millions and millions of Americans. His warpath against the then-proposed NAFTA spoke to citizens in middle America who were left confused, hurt, and hopeless as their factories had already began shuttering and manufacturing jobs fleeing for parts unknown.
He wanted to balance the federal budget, to fight special interests, give a voice to frustrated Americans, and shake up Washington in a fundamental way, as he described in his aptly-named August 1992 book “United We Stand: How We Can Take Back Our Country.” His call for electronic town halls, years before the invention of social media, inspired citizens to think about how they could participate directly in national public policy in a nation as large as the United States had become.
The American people soon took note. In April 1992 he polled 24% in Gallup against President Bush’s 44% and Governor Clinton’s 25%. Yet by May he had risen to 35% to Bush’s 35% and Clinton’s 25%. In June he actually led both, as he reached a high of 39% support to Bush’s 31% and Clinton’s 25%.
As Charles Krauthammer prophetically said in July 1992: “Perot represents no party. He does not even pretend to. Perot is a one-man-band… [he] signifies something larger, deeper…the growing obsolescence of the great institutions… technology makes it possible to bypass them.”
Yet popular support wasn’t enough. He faced the daunting legal task of — without a party — navigating the independent ballot access laws of over 50 states. Yet despite immeasurable hurdles — and fierce resistance from both the Democratic and Republican Parties — Perot became an option in every single state.
Even the “establishment” began wavering. He hired as bipartisan co-campaign managers Hamilton Jordan, who had managed President Jimmy Carter’s successful 1976 campaign and served as his White House Chief of Staff, and Ed Rollins, who had managed President Ronald Reagan’s successful 1984 campaign and served in the White House under him.
Perot’s campaign eventually floundered due to a series of gaffes from July 1992 onwards, him dropping out of the race on July 16th only to re-enter on October 1st, as well as a campaign that meandered in an uncertain direction as staff cycled through and priorities and emphasis was left unclear and uncertain. Yet despite all of that, any of which would be unthinkable in a major party campaign otherwise, he won over 18.9% of the popular vote in an election that saw voter turnout soar to reverse a decades-long decline.
While Perot would try again in 1996 nonetheless it was clear his moment had passed. He still achieved the highest non-major party vote since essentially our country’s founding, minus when a former “Bull Moose” President of unique character and personality tried in 1912. Movements have a spark and momentum. While it is unclear if he could have truly reasonably won in 1992, nonetheless his impact on American history was clear, lasting, and perhaps led to our political and civic history of recent and current years.
As former Texas Governor Rick Perry recently wrote, long after his campaign Perot remained true to looking out for struggling and forgotten Americans in many ways. Indeed that demonstrates how Perot — a Navy officer veteran and IBM salesperson who rose to entrepreneurial billionaire status — never forgot the people of this country he grew up with in East Texas.
His spirit was fundamentally American, whereby no matter our wealth, power, or fame we still look out for and care for our fellow person. He embodied that civic duty and lived out it out in a way few did and could, as he strove to be a crusader for those of his fellow countrymen he believed were being left behind.
Rest in peace, Ross — America will always remember you.
Re-prints of some of my columns. NOTE: I ran a national weekly column from 2017 to 2018 printed/distributed by newspapers in dozens of states across the country. The 2017-2018 blogs in this section are re-prints of the national column.