Unlike most of my brothers and sisters in the press corps, I wish to say some positive things about Ross Perot, whose era ended officially this July. The Perot "era" began on Feb. 20, 1992, when the maverick Texas billionaire, standing at zero in the public opinion polls, appeared on the talk show of Larry King where Perot became the first serious candidate to offer himself for a presidential draft on cable television.
Less than four months after that, Ross Perot, in major public opinion polls, led both the incumbent Republican President George Bush and his Democratic challenger Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Never before had an independent or third party candidate led either the Democratic or the Republican candidate. Perot by June led them both. During that four-month climb, Ross Perot did not spend a single nickel on radio or TV advertising.
The Perot Era began with a simple premise: From 1980 to 1992, Washington, D.C., had been a fiscal-political soap opera. Each and every year, a mostly conservative Republican president would submit a seriously unbalanced budget to a mostly liberal Democratic House of Representatives. For submitting that seriously unbalanced budget, the Republican president would be criticized, condemned and ridiculed by Democrats in the House and their friends in the press. After a semi-decent interval, the Democratic House would then substantially pass the seriously unbalanced budget the Republican president had submitted. For passing that budget, the House Democrats would then be criticized, condemned and ridiculed by the Republican president who had submitted that budget and his friends in the press.
Through one Civil and two World Wars over two centuries, the United States government had run up a total indebtedness of $1 trillion. In just a dozen years and with no war, that public debt was quadrupled. Angry citizens asked, "Who is responsible?" and each political party gave the identical answer: "The other guys are."
Ross Perot told both parties they ought to be ashamed of themselves. He put the federal budget deficit squarely into the national debate. Yes, he did once pull out of the 1992 race with a truly cockamamie excuse about an alleged Republican plot to sabotage his daughter's wedding. It was right out of the twilight zone. But make no mistake about it: Ross Perot changed the entire political debate for the rest of the 20th century. When he won the White House, President Bill Clinton introduced and passed an economic plan far heavier $500 billions worth on deficit reduction than on economic stimulus, the traditional Democratic tonic. Scared stiff by the power of the Perot insurgency, both the Democrats and the Republicans "found religion" on the matter of budget deficits. Pay-as-you-go federal spending became the government's restraint structure. Republicans had to comfort themselves with simply the happy memories of big tax cuts of the '80s. Democrats were forced to put on hold their most ambitious spending plans.
During Bill Clinton's presidency, the federal budget went from unremitting deficits "as far as the eye could see" to nearly perpetual surpluses. As budget expert Stan Collender has pointed out, everything indicates that "the deficit will have fallen or the surplus risen for each of the eight years of the Clinton presidency," a record of uninterrupted fiscal improvement "unmatched in U.S. history."
Budget restraint and fiscal discipline were both the principal product and the hallmark of the Perot Era. Just as prior to 1960, the fear of unwanted pregnancy had fostered sexual restraint among many unmarried Americans, that fear and the restraint so fostered had ended with the arrival and widespread acceptance of the birth control pill.
Projected budget surpluses are the political equivalent of The Pill. Why not cut taxes even those people who manifestly do not need the cuts because the surplus will painlessly cover the cuts? Why not fully fund this new program or that old one because obviously the surplus will permit us to do so? Fiscal promiscuity is all but inevitable. Get ready for a rerun of the '80s, a duel between the tax-slicing GOP and free-spending Democrats.
But before this remarkable chapter is closed on fiscal maturity, let us lift our glasses to the remarkable little man from Texarkana whose quixotic 1992 campaign truly changed the way Washington did business. Thank you, Ross Perot.