A man for whom I cast two votes for president died Tuesday.
Ross Perot ran for president as an independent in 1992 and as the nominee of his Reform Party in 1996. His temperament was not a good match for the presidency. But especially in that 1992 campaign, he did something no other major candidate in my lifetime has done: He made the national debt a major campaign issue, successfully educated Americans about it, and offered real solutions to solve it and other problems.
At the time, the debt was a little more than $4 trillion, or about $16,000 for every American. Today, it’s $22 trillion, or about $66,900 for every American. It will grow roughly $1 trillion this year, and that’s in a good economy.
Perot, the billionaire businessman born to modest circumstances in Texarkana, Texas, could not abide such irresponsibility. And while other candidates try to manipulate us with slick ads, divisive rhetoric and poll-tested sound bytes, he ran substantive 30-minute television commercials where he explained problems and offered solutions.
One of those attracted 16.5 million viewers. Imagine that. A man discussing politics with hand-held charts had almost as many viewers as this year’s “Game of Thrones” series finale (19.3 million), supposedly a national event. And Perot’s were broadcast when there were 74 million fewer Americans.
I watched one before writing this column. It’s among the most remarkable pieces of political communication in modern American history.
In it, he called the debt a “staggering burden to pass to our children.” He described the nation’s fiscal problems using plain language. He offered a plan to balance the budget and invest in the future. He explained what spending he would cut, and which taxes he would raise. His major proposal would increase the gas tax 10 cents a year over five years to pay for public investments, and he also would increase income taxes on the rich and reduce their exemptions. In the end, he called for fair, shared sacrifice, a word no politician uses today.
In other words, he respected Americans enough to try to solve problems, even if it meant asking them to make hard, grownup choices.
“The thing you can’t do is do nothing,” he said. “This would be comparable to knowing you had gangrene in your toe and doing nothing, and then wondering why you had to lose your whole leg.”
He won 19 percent of the vote that year. Some Republicans blame him for taking votes from President George H.W. Bush and thereby electing President Clinton. Maybe or maybe not, but he didn’t sound much like a Republican. He advocated for more federal government spending for infrastructure and research, paid for through spending cuts and tax increases. He said trickle-down economics, still Republican Party dogma today, didn’t work and had led to massive income inequality. And can you imagine a Republican proposing a 50-cent gas tax increase?
I’m more interested in Perot’s effect on the eight years after the election. After 19% of us voted for the independent candidate who campaigned on balancing the budget, Republicans and Democrats in Washington enacted policies that were much more fiscally responsible than they had been. There were even “surpluses,” though the math was fuzzy and the debt rose some during those years. Still, it was an improvement, and surely Perot’s campaign and 19% were an influence.
What if a candidate today took the Perot approach and leveled with the American people? What if one defined real problems and offered real solutions, instead of playing Santa Claus with spending increases and tax cuts based on phony math and pie-in-the-sky political theories?
Could that candidate break through in 2020 — maybe not enough to break the two-party duopoly, as Perot didn’t, but enough to veer it in a better direction, as Perot temporarily did?
The law of inertia says an object keeps moving in the same direction, or remains in place, until acted upon by an outside force. That’s physics.
In 1992, Perot was that force — in politics. With the national debt growing by about $1 trillion a year, we surely need another in 2020.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.