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The Third Rail

Ross Perot: America's Charles de Gaulle?

LARRY KING: "Can a three party system work?"
ROSS PEROT: "There won't be a three party system. One of these parties is going to disappear. One of those special interest parties will have a meltdown." KING: "Are you saying the Republicans or the Democrats are going to disappear?"
PEROT: "Two will last. That is my fearless forecast."

Here in Washington, campaign junkies obsess about whether Ross Perot's candidacy will help Clinton or Dole. But the more important question concerns Perot himself: Will he succeed in his quest to establish a third party that outlasts his candidacy and supplants the Republicans or the Democrats? Is the eccentric Texas billionaire contributing, wittingly or not, to the transformation of American politics?

Perot first announced his plans to set up a third party last September on his favorite forum, "Larry King Live." He had been mulling the idea over for a long time but moved decisively last fall because his citizens' lobby, United We Stand America, was clearly faltering. Perot launched United We Stand after he announced he was dropping out of the presidential race in July 1992. Its initial purpose, which belied Perot's announced withdrawal, was to put his name on state presidential ballots. After the election, he turned it into a vehicle to lobby Congress and endorse candidates. Perot hired a full-time staff that began organizing chapters in every congressional district.

Though membership expanded rapidly--estimates run as high as several hundred thousand--internal squabbles plagued United We Stand. Several chapters and state organizations rebelled against control from Perot and Dallas. By last summer, according to one insider, membership and funds were also lagging. Perot rested his hopes for the group's revival on an August national conference in Dallas. "Be a part of history" was the convention's call. But, in spite of attendance by the leading Republican presidential candidates, only about 4,000 United We Stand members showed. That sounded the organization's death knell. One month later, Perot announced he was founding the Reform Party.

Part of the impetus came from three political advisers: Gordon Black, a Rochester, New York, pollster Perot hired in March 1993 to conduct surveys for United We Stand; Clay Mulford, Perot's son-in-law and a Dallas securities lawyer who served as counsel for United We Stand; and Russ Verney, the former executive director of the New Hampshire Democratic Party and executive director of United We Stand.

Back when he was conducting surveys for United We Stand, Black had tossed in questions about the appeal of a third party. He told Perot that a viable third party voter base was out there for the taking, as evidenced by the expanding pool of political independents (who now outnumber registrants of either party) and by the growing enthusiasm for the idea of a third party, which hit 62 percent in a Washington Post poll last fall. According to Black, these voters represent the center rather than the extremes--"liberal or moderate on social issues, profoundly conservative on fiscal issues, and disturbed by the loss of their democratic influence."

In 1980, says Black, the brainy, bespectacled moderate John Anderson mobilized many of these voters. The former Republican congressman commanded an impressive 25 percent in September opinion polls, but by November a lack of funds had weakened Anderson's candidacy. By the time Perot ran in 1992, the unrepresented center had ballooned from about 40 percent to almost 60, according to Black. And with Perot's deep pockets, he could overcome the "normal barriers to organizing" that had stalled Anderson's and other third party candidacies.

In surveys taken in June 1992, Perot ran ahead of both Bill Clinton and George Bush with 36 percent of the vote. Black suggests that, if Perot had not dropped out in July, he might have won that much in November. Instead, when he re-entered the campaign in October, he was down to 8 percent and could never fully overcome the blow to his credibility. Even so, his final tally was 19 percent, the highest of any independent candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.

Black's model for a new third party is Charles de Gaulle's successful return to power in 1958. De Gaulle, Black writes in The Politics of American Discontent, "returned from retirement to lead a centrist movement of political reform to restructure the political system. Like the Gaullists, the supporters of Ross Perot came from the political center." Black tried to fire Perot up with the de Gaulle parallel: "We first discussed it at a speech in 1993," he says. "I told him, `I am going to give you an analogy that is kind of funny. It's with somebody who was very tall.' At first he didn't understand it, but then he focused on it."

Like Perot, both Black and Verney envision the new party as an instrument of political realignment. It would either displace one of the two major parties or be absorbed by one of them. Verney, national coordinator of the Reform Party, sees it vying from the center against either a "public-employee-dominated Democratic Party" or a "radical right Republican Party." Mulford takes a different tack. While agreeing that the parties could realign in the short term, he sees a long-term breakup of the old party system, leading to a multiplicity of parties defined by "issueoriented alliances." Mulford believes that new information-age technologies--from television and talk-radio to the Internet and computerized mailings--allow a third party candidate to reach voters he or she could never have gotten access to in the past. Only archaic election laws are preventing the proliferation of new parties. "Party labels will erode in importance. Issue-oriented alliances will be more important," Mulford explains.

My own view is closer to Mulford's. As Black and Mulford contend, conditions for third parties have improved. It's not only a matter of candidates' access to new communications technology and of growing voter alienation from the existing parties; Americans have also adopted new ways of expressing their political opinions. Before Perot's run in 1992, third parties were either the instruments of organized movements or direct spin-offs from one of the major parties. George Wallace's American Independent Party, for instance, grew out of White Citizens' Councils and dissident Democratic organizations. But, as locally based organizations--from community groups to trade unions--have atrophied or disappeared, and as urban neighborhoods, organized around common places of leisure and worship, have given way to suburban sprawl, political parties, taking advantage of the electronic media, are becoming immediate, rather than mediated, vehicles of popular protest. Perot's candidacy in 1992 emerged without an organized base. It created and defined its own base.

But, while America may be ripe for a third party, it may not be ready for a classic realignment. For a third party to realign politics, it would have to represent a new majority based on principles and programs that the other parties reject. Such a potential majority doesn't really exist. Black and Perot talk of the independents and the 60 percent who favor a third party as a homogeneous political bloc, but in fact they are deeply divided. Some of these voters, dubbed the "radical center" by Kevin Phillips, are economic nationalists and social conservatives who backed George Wallace in the '60s and '70s and would support Pat Buchanan today if he ran as a third party candidate. Other voters heed the call of Colin Powell's "sensible center," made up of pro-choice moderates and free traders. In 1992, Perot came remarkably close to representing both groups, but it is difficult to conceive of a new political party that could consistently unite them.

Black thinks the different constituencies can be joined by the desire for political reform--term limits, campaign finance reform and the like--but it is hard to construct a political party or movement from issues that have no immediate repercussions in people's daily lives and that can, in any case, easily be co-opted by rival parties. Black's analogy with de Gaulle doesn't really work. De Gaulle stood for political reform, but the French electorate supported his re-emergence because he alone appeared capable of resolving the war in Algeria. Reform came afterwards.

Most likely, American politics is not heading toward the kind of constitutional change represented by de Gaulle's Fifth Republic but toward the volatility and instability evidenced in Canada's 1993 elections, when Perot disciple Preston Manning's Reform Party came from nowhere to decimate the ruling Progressive Conservatives and to hand the Liberal Party a majority. Manning's party did not realign Canadian politics; it fragmented and dealigned it.

ON THE MORNING Perot was to appear on "Larry King," he called Black to tell him he was taking the final step toward a third party. "Are you happy now?" he asked him. Since then, Perot and a staff, headed by Verney, have been gathering the signatures needed to get on state ballots. In California, Perot spent between $700,000 and $800,000 to gather 900,000 signatures in a month. The Reform Party may not make it onto every ballot, but the name of its presidential candidate will.

Perot and his advisers also drafted a platform that embodies Black's emphasis on political reform as the unifying theme. Five of its nine planks concern campaign, congressional or lobbying reform, including term limits, the abolition of the Electoral College, weekend voting and the restriction of campaign contributions to a House member's district and a senator's state. Other provisions are aimed at balancing the budget through restricting spending and new taxes, but they are declarations of intent rather than specific programs or plans.

The party will choose its nominee after the Democrats and Republicans pick theirs. (Everyone who signs a nominating petition will be eligible to vote--by attending either the main convention in Dallas or one of several satellite conventions around the country.) Perot insists he would prefer not to run this time. Some party supporters would also prefer a different candidate. A particular favorite of local organizers is Ohio Democratic Representative Marcy Kaptur, who wowed the United We Stand convention in August with her attack on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but who is loyally behind Clinton this year. Business consultant and Republican strategist Jude Wanniski, worried that the Republicans under Dole will become the party of austerity rather than growth, is pressing Jack Kemp's name as a Reform Party nominee. Gordon Black told me he would rather someone other than Perot run, but doesn't believe that will happen. "I don't think Perot tried to reach out to other prominent people. He talked to them at various times, but he didn't reach out to them." Black believes that the problems of financing a campaign now leave no alternative to a Perot candidacy. "There is no chance for it happening without him," he says, "because there is no way to fund anyone else."

Clearly, Perot recognizes that a party championing political reform will have to live up to its own principles by soliciting "millions of people" to make "small contributions." But it's already too late for the party to rely on such contributions this year; its candidate couldn't raise enough money to compete on television with Dole and Clinton. If Perot runs, and doesn't take federal funds, he can spend as much as he wants on his own campaign. He sunk $73 million into his last go-round, more than either Bush or Clinton, and this splurge was clearly a major factor in lifting his percentage of the vote well above Anderson's. As political scientists Steven J. Rosenstone, Roy L. Behr and Edward H. Lazarus point out in Third Parties in America, Anderson spent only $1.6 million in 1980 on TV and radio. In 1992, Perot spent $45 million on TV alone, 1.3 times more than Clinton and Bush. If Perot doesn't run, and doesn't find another billionaire to replace him, the campaign would have to rely, by law, on a maximum of $1,000 donations. It could only win federal funding retroactively, as Anderson did in 1980.

The Reform Party is caught in a dilemma. If Perot runs and finances his own campaign, the party will remain his personal vehicle. He can say it's "owned by those 62 percent of the people who are not comfortable with the parties and want a third party," but in business, if not in politics, he who pays owns. On the other hand, if Perot doesn't pay, and if the party cannot recruit a major candidate like Kemp or Powell, it will become simply another sideshow, like the New Party or the Patriot Party. Perot has to run; but Perot, Verney, Mulford and Black also have to figure out how to go from Perot's self-financed candidacy in 1996 to a genuine membership party in 1998 and 2000.

FOR THE REFORM PARTY to enjoy ballot status in most congressional races in 1998, Perot will have to take home at least 15 percent of the vote this November. That's likely, but by no means guaranteed. On the plus side, Perot is a more able politician in 1996 than he was in 1992. Though he'll never admit it, he withdrew in July 1992 partly because he needed a respite from public criticism. He had just returned from a speech before the NAACP in Nashville where he had been unfairly tagged a racist for using the phrase "your people." This year, he is still testy and humorless with the press--even the bumbling David Frost drew steely glances when he made a joke about Perot planning to transfer the White House brick by brick to Dallas--but he has learned how to handle probing questions from journalists and attacks by his opponents with more aplomb. Says adviser Pat Choate, who worked closely with Perot during the bruising NAFTA debate, "He's much thicker-skinned. He can distinguish between attacks that are personal and attacks that are part of the political game."

In 1992, when reporters kept peppering him with the same questions--how he planned to balance the budget, for instance--he'd exclaim defensively, "Give me a break!" Now he's learned the politicians' strategy of rephrasing and reiterating his point without losing his cool. Perot still has the popular touch, and he has refreshed his repertoire of folksy asides. This time around, he likes to preface a statement by saying, "I want to talk to all the Road Scholars in Washington--that's r-o-a-d scholars, the people who are street smart and have common sense."

Politically, Perot remains a centrist. He's for balanced budgets but also for raising the minimum wage. He regards abortion as an "ancillary" issue but speaks eloquently and convincingly about personal responsibility. He thinks affirmative action is necessary as a "bridge" toward black economic equality. If there is any substantive change from the Perot of 1992, it's that he has made trade a less prominent part of his agenda--no trade issues show up on his platform, for example.

Perot has also gone out of his way to distinguish his position from Buchanan's. "His message is not mine," Perot told The Washington Post. "We don't want to build a wall around America." But in his speeches and when he is pressed by reporters on economic issues, Perot invariably turns to NAFTA, the trade deficit and the export of manufacturing jobs as an explanation for what ails the American middle class. His refrain, just as it was four years ago, is, "You've got to have a growing middle class in order to have the money to pay the bills."

In 1996, Perot can hope to attract two different segments of the centrist vote: Republican-leaning moderates of the sensible center who can't stand Bill Clinton, but don't think Dole is capable of governing effectively, and Democratic-leaning voters who fear for their jobs and standard of living, but don't hear their worries echoed in Dole's belt-tightening austerity or in Clinton's recitation of his bond-market-oriented successes as president.

Perot's main weakness is personal. His sudden withdrawal and re-entry in 1992 and his claim that the Bush campaign planned to disrupt his daughter's wedding convinced many voters that he's out to lunch. When the Pew Research Center asked respondents in March to describe Ross Perot with one word, the top five of twenty choices were "rich," "crazy," "idiot," "egotistical" and "nuts." My own view is that Perot is no nuttier than any other self-made billionaire from East Texas, where populist conspiracy theories outbreed rabbits. But Perot has made the mistake of airing his private gripes in public. (In the case of his daughter's wedding, what happened may have been more complicated. I myself heard rumors about compromising photographs of Perot's daughter. In seeking to excuse his own withdrawal from the race, though, Perot might have stretched these rumors into the more farfetched scenario of the Republicans busting up the wedding.)

According to the Pew poll, Perot's 1996 supporters are younger, less educated and less affluent than their 1992 counterparts. In 1992, 21 percent of Perot's backers were under 30; this year 31 percent are. In 1992, 40 percent of Perot devotees had not gone beyond high school; this year the figure is 68 percent. In 1992, 22 percent made less than $30,000; this year it's 32 percent. Reform Party organizers are making the same discovery. Says Frank Gougher, who collects signatures in Philadelphia, "I went roving up and down Market Street on Tax Day. The people who signed the petition were mainly working-class people. The yuppie types in the skyscrapers didn't bother."

Perot's also pulling much less support at this point from disenchanted conservative intellectuals and activists. In 1992, many members of the conservative Business and Industrial Council were sympathetic to Perot. This year, says President Kevin Kearns, "I have seen no movement to Perot. People I know who voted for him last time have no intention of voting for him this time." Of course, this could change between now and November. Perot has not begun campaigning, and Dole and Clinton have not begun to slug it out. The well-heeled Texan might not get support from disillusioned party operatives, but, if Dole continues to flounder in the polls, Perot will begin to get serious attention from many of the upscale voters drawn to him four years ago.

IN THE CURRENT polls, Perot is clearly taking more support from Clinton than from Dole, but William Schneider argues persuasively in the National Journal that Perot will still hurt Dole more in November. At 42 percent, Schneider argues, Dole's support is "down to the hard-core GOP base." As the race tightens and more independents and moderates lean toward the GOP nominee, Perot will begin to siphon more votes from Dole than from Clinton. Says Schneider, "The minute Dole stands a chance of beating Clinton, Perot could come in and split the anti-Clinton vote."

On the other side, Ruy Teixeira of the Economic Policy Institute argues that Perot's candidacy would hurt Clinton more. "The Clinton campaign is doing pretty well. There is a real chance that the race could settle in with a distinct advantage by early summer," Teixeira says. "The only thing that could dislodge it is change, and Perot is change. Perot could energize white downscale voters. Perot staying out increases the probability that Clinton could maintain his current advantage."

Teixeira could be right, but Perot does not seem to be making the kind of political argument that would hurt Clinton more than Dole. So far Perot has trained most of his fire on the Republicans. And his jeremiads against "mean-spirited campaigning" could make it harder for Dole to chip away at Clinton on the "character issue." That would leave Dole's already meager campaign cupboard bare.

In the end, though, Perot's influence on the election's outcome will be less important than his effect on how well Dole and Clinton do. In Clinton's first term, Perot forced the president and Congress to take deficit reduction seriously and to pass rudimentary (although, unfortunately, largely hollow) lobbying reforms. In 1996, he may force Clinton to heed the distress of workers who have not benefited from this administration's economic wizardry. He may also lay the groundwork for political reforms that make it much easier for new parties to run candidates in the future. Perot and his Reform Party will probably not displace the Republicans or the Democrats, but they may well help transform the way politics is practiced in America.

This article appeared in the May 20, 1996 issue of the magazine.