Posted on July 19, 1993 in Washington Watch
A specter is haunting both the Democratic and Republican parties—the specter of H. Ross Perot.
As the leadership of both parties met in recent weeks, the question about what to do with Ross Perot dominated their discussions. A poll commissioned by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and conducted by President Clinton’s own pollster, Stanley Greenberg, found that Perot continues to hold the loyalty of millions of American voters.
As a group, Greenberg found that “Perot voters” have become the “radical center” of American politics. They are anti-government—they believe it is corrupt and malfunctioning. In particular, Perot voters blame the Congress for most of the faults in government. It is this concern about the ineffectiveness of government that is the strongest identifying feature of Perot voters—not agreement about a specific issue. This, and of course, their personal loyalty to Ross Perot.
What the Perot phenomenon has exposed is the high level of alienation among a surprising number of American voters. Although this is something that we have known for some time (after all, in most Presidential elections only 50% of the eligible voters cast ballots, and that figure drops to around 30% in non-Presidential elections), what Perot has done is to give a voice to this alienation—and it is an angry and cynical voice.
The questions that both major parties are now asking themselves are these: Is Perot merely a symptom of what is wrong, or is he the cause? Or, is he now becoming the source of an even more ominous problem?
It’s difficult to understand the reality of what Ross Perot has done to U.S. politics until you see him and his supporters in action.
Senator Bob Dole, Republican Leader in the U.S. Senate calls Perot a “walking sound bite” and a “great hit and run artist.” No one in recent U.S. history has had a better instinct for what voters want to hear. Perot, part comic and part critic, can be devastatingly funny as he takes aim at political problems and personalities of Washington. He speaks the language of the common man and yet exudes the aura of self-confident leadership. To many of his followers, he is “everyman, telling off those boys in Washington.”
With his now-famous charts and pointer he reduces every complex problem to a simple lesson. `Too much spending?’ he asks. `Then cut spending,’ he answers. `Too many imports—then cut imports; too many taxes—then cut taxes.’
He’s a professional salesman and, like any good salesman, he’ll tell any lie to sell his product. In the case of Ross Perot, the product being sold is Ross Perot for President.
By spending tens of millions of dollars on paid television and by appearing with regularity on every television talk show, in 1992 he turned his salesmanship into 19,000,000 votes for Ross Perot for President.
Now, in 1993, he is building a permanent national organization called “United We Stand, America” (UWSA) as the platform from which to continue his quest for national leadership.
He has used mass marketing techniques and paid television advertising to produce millions of members of UWSA. As a result of his television appearances he has become a national celebrity—a star. And so, when Ross Perot travels to cities around the country to organize rallies he invariably draws thousands of people. He has held rallies in seven cities in four states, attracting tens of thousands of cheering supporters.
It has been interesting to watch Perot’s strategy unfold. During the early days of his 1992 Presidential effort, he focused his attacks on President George Bush. By May of 1992 some polls showed Perot in a position to take the lead in the Presidential race. At that point the national political media began to take a closer look at Perot’s business dealings and at the details of his political message. As the darker side of Ross Perot began to emerge, he withdrew from the race and suggested that he did so largely because his message had become a part of the Democratic Party platform. This gave Clinton a boost in the polls before his 1992 convention—a boost which he never lost.
Later in the year, when Perot reentered the race, much of his initial luster was gone. But through television advertising and his debate performances against President Bush and then-candidate Clinton, he won back some of his admirers. At this point, seeing that Bush was so far behind in the polls, Perot directed his attack against Clinton, calling him a “failed governor from a small failing state.”
Now, with Clinton in the White House, Perot’s attacks have become more harsh. At one point, for example, while criticizing Clinton’s economic program, he told his followers that if someone came to him looking for a job with ideas and experience like Clinton’s he would tell that person, “Son, you’re not ready. Come back when you’re better organized and have more experience.” And when Clinton at first proposed U.S. involvement in Bosnia, Perot shockingly accused him of doing so only to divert attention from domestic economic problems.
Some analysts now perceive that Perot’s strategy is to attack whoever is on top in an effort to deny them the support of the majority, and to maintain his own position as the voice of the alienated voters that are a key to any successful national campaign.
This is Clinton’s problem in a nutshell: he won 43% of the vote. It is not easy for him to govern when all his opponents know that he was not elected by a larger margin and, therefore, may not have the support of a majority. Bush’s voters are most likely committed Republicans who Clinton will have a difficult time reaching and winning over. The 19 million Perot voters are Clinton’s targets—and Perot knows it. So Perot’s strategy is simply to keep Clinton from ever gaining the support of over 50% of the U.S. voters.
Playing the middle in politics can be easy and fun—but it can also be dangerous for the country.
Right now Perot is playing the Republicans’ game. In the past few months he has visited Congress on at least three occasions to support the Republican members in their opposition to Democratic proposals on House rules, on campaign finance reform and on Clinton’s budget.
He appeared a few days before the Senate was to vote on the President’s budget, carrying petitions signed by 2.5 million voters who opposed any plan that raises taxes before reducing spending. In all of his Congressional appearances, Perot has had a crowd of Republicans basking in his light. They see him as popular and, therefore, want his support. He sees them as giving him an institutional strength which he lacks and also a kind of legitimacy, so he’s willing to use them—for now.
The question of how to relate to Perot has, for obvious reasons, become a matter of intense debate in both parties. Some Republicans, like former Bush Cabinet Secretary Jack Kemp, say in effect `let’s use him while we can.’ Kemp said recently, “Perot…has spoken out eloquently and passionately on the need for government reform and most of us agree with that.”
Another Republican, newly-elected Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison was endorsed by UWSA during her recent campaign. After her victory she proudly announced her membership in UWSA and has appeared with Perot at rallies. And three other Republican members of Congress (all of whom will be facing tough reelection races in 1994) have also joined UWSA.
But other Republicans are wary of Perot. Republican leader William Bennett, who also served in Bush’s Cabinet, warns his fellow party members not to give Perot support. “If we legitimate Perot now,” he cautions, “we can make him so big we’ll have to delegitimize him later. We can make him so big, he’ll overshadow us.”
Democrats are equally concerned. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, a candidate in the 1992 Presidential primary said:
“Mr. Perot is about as phony as a $3 bill. He’s a fraud on the American people. I hope the press gives him more coverage because the more people know about him, the sooner they will turn him off and start looking for real answers.”
Other Democrats have been somewhat less direct in their criticisms, but no one from their side of the aisle is befriending Perot, at least not yet.
Still, both parties are very concerned about how Perot will treat other critical issues on the national agenda, what he will do in the 1994 Congressional elections and, of course, what Perot himself will do in the 1996 Presidential election.
Neither Republican leaders nor the Democratic Administration are pleased, for example, with Perot’s attitude toward the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Since the last Presidential campaign Perot has been a relentless foe of NAFTA, deriding it in comical and harsh terms as simply a device to send “good paying American jobs to Mexico.” In fact, Perot’s handling of this issue displays some interesting and telling aspects of both his character and his strategy.
Perot has continued to attack both Clinton and his U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor on the subject of NAFTA. He has even challenged Kantor to a debate on the subject, which Kantor has rightly refused. But two Arizona Republicans, Senator John McCain and Representative Jim Kolbe, have challenged to debate Perot themselves on NAFTA. One must remember that NAFTA was originally negotiated during the Bush Administration, and Republicans support the agreement because they believe that it will produce economic benefits for Mexico, Canada and the U.S.
Until now, however, Perot has made a point of ignoring McCain and Kolbe because he has not interest in debating Republicans. Clinton is his only target right now.
And some question whether, despite his crowd-pleasing rhetoric and his anti-Clinton antics, Perot does in fact oppose NAFTA. It was recently revealed in a leading Texas newspaper that Perot’s pet project, the Alliance Airport near Dallas (in which he has invested $200 million) has applied to the U.S. Commerce department for tariff breaks for the airport as a “springboard of goods flying in and out of Mexico.” The application calls NAFTA a “benefit” to the U.S. economy because it will “expand trade opportunities, lower prices, increase competition, etc.”
This is classic Perot: exploiting the fears of average Americans for his political benefit while exploiting economic opportunities for his personal benefit.
While Perot continues to describe himself as a “servant of the people” and his organization, UWSA , as a populist manifestation, the situation has been quite the reverse. Recent press reports on national television and in major national newspapers show that UWSA is not a bottom-up organization; but rather that it is governed from the top-down. Several former UWSA volunteer state coordinators have described how they were pushed out of their positions by Perot operators who were sent out from the national headquarters in Dallas. They describe an organization made up of former FBI, CIA and military personnel who have been hired by Perot to run the state organizations and remove the local leaders. Dissent isn’t tolerated in UWSA—going along with Perot is mandatory.
The editor and founder of USA Today, the nation’s largest circulation daily newspaper, has described Perot as an authoritarian populist and has compared him to Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. But still the Perot phenomenon persists, draws new members, and continues to plague the leadership of both parties.
When Perot is attacked by reporters or editorialists, he simply turns the attack around—making fun of his attackers or chiding them for their cynicism. His followers love these antics. One former Perot pollster has described this Perot technique as “creating a shield around himself that is impenetrable, and that’s scary.”
Yet as long as the gridlock continues in Washington, Perot will feed off it. As long as the two major parties are unable to win the allegiance of Perot voters, he will continue to have appeal. The misfortunes of established politicians and institutions will be Perot’s good fortune.
The media is also to blame. They gave Perot a free ride for a long time, and many still do. While some have started to expose him, too many continue to treat him as a celebrity who is entitled to freely express his opinions without being exposed to expert criticism, while at the same time treating him as an authority on political and social issues. This treatment has allowed him to retain the high status and large following he built during the first heady days of his candidacy (and free media ride) in early 1992.
A hopeful sign lies in the emergence of some new strategic thinking in both parties as they put to use for their own ends the techniques developed or adapted for political use by Perot: telemarketing, town halls, and satellite national television broadcasts, an extensive outreach to organize at the grass roots. The parties have resolved to make up for lost time and not court Perot the man. They will instead focus on winning back the confidence of the Perot voters.
At the same time, the two major parties are appealing to the media to do more investigative work on the dealings of Ross Perot because, in the words of Senator Harkin, “The more people know about him, the sooner they will turn him off and start looking for real answers.”
One final note:
Media Attacks on Clinton also Share Blame
While only rarely criticizing Ross Perot, the U.S. media has been devastating in its criticism of Bill Clinton, helping bring his popularity rating down to very low levels for a U.S. President. A survey of national television coverage in the first six months of 1993 show that of the 1,272 comments made about the President by national news networks and political commentators, 66% were negative and only 34% were positive. At the same time, a study of radio programs over the past three years shows that President Clinton has been the “most bashed political personality in radio.” He has been attacked even more frequently than Saddam Hussein.
Another study of jokes told by television’s late-night comedians shows that Clinton has been the butt of 676 jokes during the first six months of this year. To show how large a number this is in relative terms, the much-maligned for Vice President Dan Quayle was the butt of only 56 jokes during the first six months of 1989. Clearly this barrage of attacks has something to do with public disrespect for the President, and public cynicism about the Presidency and government as institutions. It is in this climate of disrespect that someone like Perot can flourish.
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