Ross Perot's Political Legacy: Clinton, Populism, Trump and the Tea Party

WASHINGTON -Ross Perot wasn’t the last billionaire with the audacity to run for president.He wasn’t the first populist candidate, or the first to use extended infomercials to make a case for pet issues.But he was the most successful third party candidate in history. The template he set in 1992 didn’t directly spark the tea party movement or the later election of President Donald Trump, but both owe a debt.“His national grassroots movement changed politics forever,” Sen. Ted Cruz said Tuesday after the Dallas businessman died at age 89.The last third party candidate to come close to pulling in as many votes as Perot did was a former president, Teddy Roosevelt, back in 1912.Both ended up as spoilers rather than winners."I think he'd have won, and I just can't prove it," George W. Bush said in the fall of 2014, recalling his dad’s loss. "I mean, it's just all conjecture, of course. But I think he would have won, because I think ultimately there would have been a - you know, a clear choice between - you know, a guy who had a very good first term and an untested governor."But Perot did more than just sap support that George H.W. Bush could have used to fend of Democrat Bill Clinton.Through force of will, a massive infusion of personal cash and a folksy delivery that lent itself to Saturday Night Live caricature, he brought demands for a balanced federal budget, campaign finance reform and congressional term limits into the national conversation.When the tea party came along in 2010, it was fueled by some of the same passions. “Taxed enough already.” Mistrust of an entrenched political elite.In the 2016 campaign, Trump tapped into the same economic frustrations and insecurities that Perot had identified and stoked when he warned against the pending North American Free Trade Agreement.“There will be a giant sucking sound going south,” Perot warned at the second presidential debate, in October 1992, flanked by Bush and Clinton.Trump’s vow to “drain the swamp” was an echo of the outside-the-Beltway worldview. But Perot never pointed a finger at illegal immigration, and he crusaded against federal red ink, whereas Trump has broken GOP orthodoxy on fiscal restraint.Even so, Perot’s foray into politics gave credibility to the idea that someone without conventional government experience should be taken seriously, and Trump is the first president who hadn’t served as a governor, in Congress, or as a general.In the first GOP primary debate four years ago, Trump refused to pledge support for the party’s eventual nominee, raising the specter of another third party run by a popular, populist billionaire. Both Perot and Trump attracted generally older, white, college-educated, mistrustful about government and fearful that the country is in decline.The traction Perot achieved certainly didn’t discourage future tycoons.Media magnate Michael Bloomberg, a former New York mayor, has flirted with a presidential bid over the years, and used his fortune to push for gun control. California billionaire Tom Steyer announced a bid for president on Tuesday, shortly before news broke of Perot’s death; he’s been using his fortune to pressure House Democrats to impeach Trump.As for Perot, he spent $62 million of his own fortune on the 1992 race.Blame for Bush's 1992 defeatRepublicans blamed him for costing them the election.In Texas, home turf both for Bush and Perot, 1.3 million voters cast a ballot for the quirky billionaire. That was 22% of the vote - substantial, though not enough to change the outcome. Bush topped Clinton 41-37, with a margin of 215,000 votes.Nationally, Perot drew 19% - just under 19 million votes. He won no states or electoral votes. But it was the best showing for a third party or independent candidate since 1912.  Continue reading...

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