APPEARING ON HIS FAVORITE FORUM, LARRY KING LIVE, last spring, Ross Perot seized the opportunity to tell the American people how to save the medicare system from certain fiscal ruin. “Now then, instead of doing it in the show-business fashion that everything is done now, let’s do it carefully, logically, and rationally,” Perot said. “There is a way to do it.”
Thank goodness—but what could it be? A tax increase? The public will hate it. Controls on medical costs? The doctors will go nuts. Larger payments by patients? The retirees will revolt. None of the above. Perot’s solution: “To fix medicare, you’ve got to have”—drumroll, please—“a detailed plan to fix it . . .” Next problem.
In fact, the next problem for American politics is Ross Perot himself. His latest brainchild, the Reform Party, will hold national conventions in August and will announce its presidential candidate on August 18. He has said (on Larry King again) that he’ll run if chosen, but his popularity isn’t what it was back in 1992, when he led the presidential polls in the spring and won 19 percent of the vote in November. But even if the Reform Party standard-bearer is former Colorado governor Dick Lamm, the party’s ideas (and most of its money) will come from Ross Perot.
We know what his money is worth, but what about his ideas? Does he analyze problems well, and do his answers make sense? Look again at his discussion of medicare on the Larry King show. His solution is so vague as to be meaningless, and his analysis of the problem—condemning show-business politics—is totally disingenuous. Ross Perot is a master of show-business politics. He was the first politician to recognize the potential of appearing on shows like Larry King’s. He was the first politician of the modern era to make interesting, serious TV commercials. His chosen role, the billionaire patriot as common man, is one of the best acts around. Ross Perot, the character, is such a strong image that it keeps most of the attention focused on his personality rather than on what he stands for.
For Perot, this is just as well. Over the years, he has inserted himself into five major issues: drugs, education reform, balancing the budget, NAFTA, and political reform. His intentions are good, but an examination of his record reveals that his judgments and his achievements are not. His most valuable contribution has been to make the public more aware of problems, but when it comes to fixing them, Perot’s solutions have not held up over time.
The War on Drugs In 1981 Governor Bill Clements picked Perot to lead an attack on drug trafficking. Perot knows how to bring an issue to public attention; this time he did it by mobilizing parent-teacher associations and flooding legislators with letters demanding action. His lobbyists told lawmakers that Florida had just passed a law calling for mandatory prison sentences for major drug offenders and that drug dealers living there were already planning to move to Texas, where the laws were more lenient. Perot’s solution was to make Texas’ laws just as tough, if not tougher.
The Legislature enacted the war-on-drugs proposals, the most important of which called for much longer—and in some cases, mandatory—prison sentences for drug dealers. But the hype didn’t produce the promised results. Longer sentences didn’t deter drug dealers from operating in Texas. The new laws, however, did have an unforeseen and disastrous effect. They clogged the penal system with drug offenders—some of them bona fide bad guys, some of them rather harmless, but the laws didn’t distinguish between them. Before the decade was out, prison overcrowding triggered the mandatory release of inmates, many of whom had committed crimes of violence.
Education Reform In 1984 another governor, Mark White, turned to Perot for help, this time with the poor educational performance of Texas schools. The campaign for school reform was unquestionably Perot’s best achievement. He was right about reducing class size, giving academics priority over athletics with the no-pass, no-play law, and evaluating school performance with standardized testing.
But he was wrong about a lot of things too. A career ladder for superior teachers didn’t work. The school-finance system was thrown out by the courts. His biggest mistake was a system of top-down control of education by the state government that imposed uniform rules in a large and diverse state. The Perot plan was more concerned with what went into the educating process than what came out of it in the form of results. That’s why the Legislature scrapped the Perot reforms in 1995 and adopted George W. Bush’s plan granting local districts more autonomy.
The Deficit and the Debt Four years ago presidential candidate Perot made reducing America’s budget deficit and national debt the number one issue of the campaign. He even raised the possibility of increasing taxes to get us out of debt. Today Perot is still sounding the alarm—“In the twenty-first century, it’s like a rocket to the moon in terms of the increase [in] the debt and the deficit,” he said on Meet the Press in April—but the issue has curiously receded. Or maybe not so curiously; the $290 billion budget deficit of 1992 has been cut in half.
Perot was right to raise the issue in 1992, when nothing was being done about it. Now, however, medicare and medicaid cuts are on the table and a balanced budget is in sight. There is a growing sense among economists and politicians that being in debt is not as grave a problem as Perot makes it out to be, so long as the deficit continues to decline, interest rates stay low, and the gross national product grows faster than the debt. Supply-side conservatives and Keynesian liberals are in rare agreement that economic growth is the best way to get out of debt. A Perot-style assault on the debt—say, raising taxes and cutting the budget at the same time—would wreck the economy: Together reducing private and public spending is a surefire formula for a recession.
NAFTA Perot made an all-out effort to block the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. He likened NAFTA to a giant vacuum that would suck manufacturing jobs out of the United States into Mexico and co-authored a book (Save Your Job, Save Our Country: Why NAFTA Must Be Stopped—Now!). Perot even debated Vice President Al Gore on the Larry King show. But he was so unconvincing that the debate was regarded as the turning point in NAFTA’s eventual approval.
Perot continues to rail against what he calls “stupid trade deals,” but that description hardly fits NAFTA. His predictions of a corporate exodus were wrong. The U.S. Department of Labor tracked jobs lost during the first two years of NAFTA (but not jobs gained); Texas lost a scant 3,648 jobs during that period, a time span during which 573,000 new jobs were created here, more than in any other state. In any case, corporate moves to Mexico could have occurred whether NAFTAexisted or not. NAFTAlocked in Mexican economic reforms that have enabled the U.S.’s level of trade across the border to double since 1989.
Political Reform Ross Perot has had a few good ideas and a few bad ones, but the worst of the bad ones is that a new political party is necessary before America’s problems can be addressed. Hasn’t he been reading the papers? Every issue imaginable has been up for debate in the past two years: the balanced budget, term limits, entitlement cuts, tax reform, campaign-finance reform, affirmative action, and on and on. Few of them have been resolved, but there can be little doubt that the direction of American politics has changed drastically since Perot ran for president. The two-party system is healthier than it has been in years.
The Reform Party is a particularly wrongheaded idea. Its vague positions are based upon the simplistic, technocratic notion that the perfect solution for every problem exists and needs only to be discovered and embraced by all. On taxes, for example, the Reform Party position begins with, “The new tax system must be fair.” That’s a laugh. Taxes by their nature aren’t fair; they affect some people more than others. What type of unfair taxes should we have? That’s where the battle lies.
The political system needs a hefty dose of reform now and then, but it doesn’t need—and will never have—a successful party based solely on reform. This is because politics is ultimately about ideals and interests. The Republicans built a third party around the abolition of slavery. The populists built a third party around a revolt against concentrated, unchecked economic power. These are ideas with lasting appeal to large numbers of people. Reform is not.
The Reform Party has galvanized the cynical, the naive, and the disillusioned. Its leader tells his followers what they want to hear—that politics is simple, that solutions are easy, that only selfishness, ignorance, and corruption stand between America and greatness. Not all of the disillusioned are for Perot, but all of them are against the political establishment: the president, the Congress, and the two major political parties. Ross Perot himself has little chance to govern America, but his lasting importance is that he has made it much more difficult for anyone else to do so.