Earlier this month, Washington Post political writer Chris Cillizza wrote that billionaire businessman H. Ross Perot, who ran independent campaigns for president in 1992 and 1996, would make the perfect third-party presidential candidate in 2012.
“The time is even more ripe today for the kind of economic-populist outsider message he embodied,” Mr. Cillizza wrote. Mr. Perot’s down-home message warning of the dangers of runaway federal debt may have resonance among some Americans, namely the Tea Partyers, but it is darn unpopular with Democrats, many independents and some Republicans.
It is unpopular with much of the media as well, who are far more speedy, pervasive, opinionated and amplified than in the pre-Internet, pre-Facebook and pre-Twitter era when Mr. Perot made his two unsuccessful runs.
In those days, Mr. Perot was a media darling, delighting scribes with easily quotable homespun philosophy, such as you solve problems by looking under the hood, rolling up your sleeves and fixing them — aphorisms that sounded good in the telling. When they were closely examined, however, there was no “there,” there. But with the economy in the doldrums and incumbent President George H.W. Bush unable to convince a majority of the citizenry that he had a fix for it, many disillusioned voters were willing to grasp at straws.
That was 20 years ago, a millennium when measured against today’s warp-speed media campaigning. Mr. Perot’s folksy homemade charts and graphs illustrating the growing debt and his 30-minute infomercials in which he did most of the talking would be little more than fertile fodder for “The Daily Show,” late-night-TV comics and “Saturday Night Live.” Imagine trying to get today’s Twitter generation to sit down for half an hour and listen to a political lecture by an elderly white guy with a whiny high-pitched voice. If it cannot be said in 140 characters, forget it. Successful millionaires and billionaires, of which Mr. Perot is one, are no longer admired as they once were. They are vilified, as presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is learning the hard way.
Mr. Perot made billions founding and later selling Electronic Data Systems Corp., a major federal government contractor that computerized Medicare records, to General Motors Co. He then founded Perot Systems, also a government contractor, and sold it to Dell Inc. for additional billions. With that kind of wealth and business background, he would face a storm of scorn not only from President Obama, but also a large segment of the media. They have turned Mr. Romney’s wealth into a caricature.
Imagine the salty Mr. Perot’s response when asked to release multiple tax returns and the bashing he would get if he refused, as he did in 1992 and 1996. Mr. Perot was treated with kid gloves by a bored media that loved the vim and vigor he brought to the 1992 race. By 1996, the novelty had worn off, not only with the media, but also with voters. He went from 19 percent of the vote in ‘92 to just 8 percent in ‘96. He carried no states and won no electoral votes in either race.
In addition, Mr. Perot was rather thin-skinned when it came to scrutiny of his personal life. He petulantly quit the ‘92 race in July of that year — only to return in October. In an October 1992 interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” he said he quit in July because the Bush campaign was preparing to sabotage his daughter’s wedding. He offered no evidence and few specifics to back his charge.
“I can’t prove any of it today,” he said. “But it was a risk I did not have to take,” he added, “and a risk I would not take where my daughter is concerned.”
The news media in those days undertook no real investigations to find out the facts that led him to that accusation. Could he get away with it today? It is not likely.
Finally, we come back to the thorny issue of reducing the federal debt — Mr. Perot’s signature theme — which Mr. Cillizza believes would play well this year. If so, why aren’t the media extolling the virtues to the Tea Party and deficit hawks such as Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, who say the key to economic recovery is slashing federal spending? Instead, we are buried under a blizzard of stories about how children will starve, schools will close and the elderly will die if federal spending is cut, and how those out to do it have no heart, or worse, are just plain nuts.
In the end, Mr. Cillizza knocks down his own argument for Mr. Perot, now 82 and long gone from politics, or someone like him, when he writes, “Polling suggests that although almost everyone likes the idea of another choice in elections, when that choice has a name, a face and a series of policy positions, he (or she) is far less appealing.”
When that candidate’s central position is reducing the federal debt, he would face a rough uphill fight, even if it were Ross Perot.
Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He teaches politics and journalism at American University and in the Fund for American Studies program at Georgetown University.