Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Perot Myths

I have an item up at PostPartisan talking about third party candidates, but it also gives me an excuse to try again to debunk the myth that Ross Perot was a strong and effective champion of reducing budget deficits. It ain't true!

Here's what got me going. Tom Friedman quotes David Walker, Friedman's fave prospective 3rd party presidential candidate:
“He did three things,” says Walker. “He woke up the American people to the truth about our fiscal situation in clear, concise and compelling terms. He made the presidential debates much more substantive, and he helped to set the next president’s agenda, and, as a result, we made great progress in reducing the deficit from 1993 to 2000. Now we have lost all of that and more.”
None of these three claims are true. First of all, Perot's campaign began in 1992, but deficit politics totally dominated Washington for a full decade before that. On the third point, I don't think it's reasonable to read the record of the Clinton administration and conclude that their deficit focus in 1993 was inspired by Perot; it was, to the contrary, both regular Democratic policy from 1982 on, and shifted to a higher priority because of the all-mighty bond market and concerns about its effect on the economy, not fear of a direct electoral threat from the deficit.

And as for "made the presidential debates much more substantive": that's a good laugh. I defy anyone to run through the 1992 presidential debates and find anything substantive in anything Ross Perot said. Here's a very typical example. I'm sorry it's long, but I think it's useful to make the point:
PEROT: Step one, the American people send me up there, the day after election, I'll get with congressional--we won't even wait till inauguration, and I'll ask the president to help and I'll ask his staff to help me. And we will start putting together teams to put together--to take all the plans that exist and do something with them. Please understand. There are great plans lying all over Washington nobody ever executes. It's like having a blueprint for a house you never built. You don't have anywhere to sleep. Now our challenge is to take these things, do something with them. Step one, we want to put America back to work, clean up the small business problem, have one task force at work on that. The second, you've got your big companies that are in trouble, including the defense industries--have another one on that. Have a 3rd task force on new industries of the future to make sure we nail those for our country and they don't wind up in Europe and Asia. Convert from 19th to 21st century capitalism. See, we have an adversarial relationship between government and business. Our international competitors that are cleaning our plate have an intelligent relationship between government and business, and a supportive relationship. Then have another task force on crime because, next to jobs, our people are concerned about their safety. Health care, schools--one on the debt and deficit. And finally in that 90- day period before the inauguration, put together the framework for the town hall and give the American people a Christmas present. Show them by Christmas the first cut at these plans. By the time Congress comes into session to go to work, have those plans ready to go in front of Congress. Then get off to a flying start in '93 to execute these plans. Now, there are people in this room and people on this stage who've been in meetings when I would sit there and say, "Is this the one we're going to talk about or do something about?" Well, obviously, my orientation is let's go do it. Now, put together your plans by Christmas, be ready to go when Congress goes, nail these things. Small business--you've got to have capital, you've got to credit, and many of them need mentors or coaches. And we can create more jobs there in a hurry than any other place.
Remind you of anyone? It's Prince Herman on every subject other than taxes. No substance at all; elect me, and I'll come up with something. That's about it.

Meanwhile, Ross Perot spent the entire campaign ridiculing the budget deal Bush and Congress had made that actually did shrink the deficit, and the then spent the first four Clinton years bashing the 1993 budget which took care of the rest of the job.

On balance, I'd say that Ross Perot did absolutely nothing for deficit reduction, but if pressed I'd say his contribution, if it had any effect, tended to make deficit-cutting harder. There was no good reason for anyone to buy Perot myths twenty years ago, but there's even less reason now.


  1. Pointing out Tom Friedman is wrong is like saying water is wet, though you'd need to use more terrible metaphors...

    1. "While in the back of a taxi recently charging through the streets of Jakarta on the way to the Mandarin Oriental, I found myself talking with the driver about Indonesia, which is an archipelago - a term meaning a group of islands - and the problems our world faces. Islands are surrounded by water, I pointed out; and like the world's problems, water is vast, and deep, and dark. He nodded, silently, thinking about how right this was."

    2. Tybalt you just won the internet

  2. Gotta disagree, and I think that quote is one of any number of Perot quotes that would demonstrate it.

    Prior to 1992, the congressional Republican Party simply REFUSED to be a responsible adult on budgeting and deficits. What 1992 did is demonstrate to the parties that a large segment of voters were interested in a candidate who promised three things:
    1) deficit reduction
    2) NAFTA=bad (or, more generally, populism is good)
    3) to be as batshit crazy as possible
    The day after the election in 1992, Republicans saw a huge chunk of voters willing to swallow crazy if you promised them deficit reduction. I'm not saying they saw correctly; but they clearly saw that. Thus, you get Gingrich, who rejected any attempt at balancing the budget in 1990 pushing a BBA by 1994. Once in power, and aided by the Clinton tax increases and economic boom of the mid-90s, a balanced budget became reachable, and the Republicans reached to make that happen. And Clinton, no stranger to Perot's idiocy, reached as well. They did so having learned the lesson that voters seemed to care about deficits.

    Note that NOTHING in this requires voters to ACTUALLY care about deficits. Dick Cheney could be totally right. Rather, it requires politicians to engage in tea leaf reading after an election....and they certainly do that.

    The lessons learned in DC are electoral. They are often OVERlearned, or learned incorrectly. But MCs will STILL reference the 1816 vote to increase congressional pay that led to MCs being burned in effigies.

    One of my favorite laws of politics is that something doesn't have to be right to be conventional wisdom.

    1. BTW, I'm not saying that the modern GOP has remained or even ever truly was a responsible adult on budgeting. Rather, Perot showed them that they had best pretend.

  3. Well, at least he knows that there is a Congress and that they have some sort of role in the budget and legislative process. And that's something considering the vast majority of 3rd party presidential candidate fantasies don't seem to grasp those facts.

  4. The indispensable C-SPAN comes to the rescue with video of this moment in the debate:


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