This week, H. Ross Perot, the enigmatic Texas billionaire, two-time presidential candidate and reform party founder passed away at the age of 89.
Most of us have long since forgotten about Perot, and many adults today are too young to remember him, or fully understand the impact he had on the last 30 years of American politics. But that doesn’t change the fact that Perot fundamentally changed the trajectory of this country’s future, and presaged the issues and debates we would have in the post-Cold War world.
Let’s start with the obvious. Perot was the only third-party candidate in the last 150 years who had a realistic chance of becoming president.
George Wallace in 1968. Strom Thurmond in 1948. Robert La Follette in 1924. Each spoke to a tiny sliver of the American electorate, and were never going to win. Even Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 was only in the race to spite William Taft.
Perot, by contrast, was a legitimate contender. By June of 1992, Perot was leading the polls against both incumbent president George H.W. Bush and then-governor Bill Clinton. One poll gave him an 8-point lead over Bush, and a 14-point lead over Clinton.
Obviously, despite this he didn’t win, and it is his own fault. He never seemed to really want to run in the first place, he made a bizarre choice of running mate, and of course he famously dropped out, and then got back in.
But the point is, he could have won. He captured lightning in a bottle in a way that no other third-party presidential candidate has in the modern era.
His uniqueness, though, wasn’t reserved just to the fact that he was a true outsider with a real chance to win. Perot was also the first third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt to actually change the outcome of an election.
While there is still some debate about his final impact, it is without question that the Perot base was made up almost entirely of three groups of people, all of whom he stole from Bush.
The first was conservative Republicans who felt betrayed by the violation of Bush’s “no new taxes” pledge. The second was the “Reagan Democrats,” who were blue-collar Democrats who were skeptical of big government, and the third was populist independents who were fed up by high deficits, high taxes, and were fearful of free trade.
All three of these groups were in the Reagan coalition in 1980 and 1984, and they all supported Bush in 1988. But in 1992, they belonged to Perot, and Bush couldn’t win without them, handing the election to Clinton.
When you think of the trickle down effect that has had on American politics, it is truly remarkable to consider.
A re-elected Bush would have gotten the credit for the 1990s economy, and set up Vice President Dan Quayle or another Republican to potentially win a fifth consecutive GOP term in 1996.
Bill Clinton would never have become a national figure, and the nation would have been spared the Monica Lewinsky affair, and impeachment.
Without dissatisfaction from Clinton’s first two year’s in office, the Republican Revolution of 1994 would not have happened, and the Democrats might never have let go of Congress.
George W. Bush would probably have never run for president to avenge his father’s loss to Clinton. The country very well could have turned to a Democrat in the year 2000, fatigued with Republican dominance of the executive branch. The September 11th attacks, if they even still happened, would have occurred under a Democrat, and the resulting American reaction would have either been very different, or the same with the partisan positions reversed.
Indeed, without the firebrand speakership of Newt Gingrich and the Democratic desire for revenge from impeachment, much of the partisan nonsense we see today would have probably not occurred, or would have at least occurred for different reasons.
Barack Obama would never have emerged and cast himself as a clean slate from the Bush years. Hillary Clinton would probably never have run for president, nor would her name evoke the same negative feelings of political dynasty. And who knows about Donald Trump.
One man, Ross Perot, may have inadvertently created our modern political world. And as if that isn’t enough, his populism-fueled campaign would end up showing itself to be ahead of its time, speaking to so many of the issues that have come to a head and currently dominate our lives, particularly debt, government reform, anti-establishment sentiment, and trade protectionism.
Perot may have been a pioneer in the business world, but he was a bigger one in politics. May he rest in peace.