Ross Perot: Election spoiler or message shaper?
What top administration officials on both sides of the aisle said about the two-time presidential candidate, who died yesterday at 89
Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who ran for president as an independent in 1992 and 1996, passed away July 9 at age 89. We searched our presidential oral history archives for fascinating commentary from top government officials on how Perot's shrink-the-deficit platform may have been responsible for George H. W. Bush's 1992 reelection loss—and may have helped soon-to-be-president Bill Clinton hone his economic message.
Perot's main arguments during the campaigns were to reduce the federal debt and oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But according to some, it also may have been personal. He and President Bush had a history (see below).
In 1992, Perot tapped into voter anger stemming from bloated federal budget deficits and anti-Washington, anti-free trade sentiments. In the presidential election, he managed to capture 19 percent of the popular vote.
Perot did not stop campaigning. He continued to argue against NAFTA and even debated Vice President Al Gore on November 9, 1993, on CNN’s Larry King Live.
In 1996, he continued pushing his federal budget message on the campaign trail by creating the Reform Party, but only got 8 percent of the popular vote.
Click here to listen to (or read the transcript of) Perot in the 1992 debate, with Bush 41 and Clinton, moderated by Jim Lehrer. And keep reading for Perot-related highlights from the Miller Center's Oral History Program.
Dan Quayle, George H. W. Bush's vice president:
“The [Ross] Perot factor was clearly a huge factor in that ’92 campaign. We never really figured out how to deal with it. He was in the campaign, then he was out of the campaign, then he was back in. The Clinton people talked our people into letting him into the debates, which was a big mistake. You notice he wasn’t in the debates in ’96, but he was in ’92.”
Read more here.
James Baker, George H. W. Bush's chief of staff:
“We had Ross Perot taking two out of every three votes from us, and there’s no doubt about that. Don’t believe that baloney that he puts out that he didn’t take from us any more than he took from the Democrats. He took, our polling showed it consistently, two out of every three. He got 19 percent, we got 38 percent. Take two-thirds of 19 percent, and we got 51 percent.”
Dr. James Young: "The divisions within the Republican Party apart from Perot. Was that a factor at all? [Newt] Gingrich?"
"Well, the fact that Gingrich didn’t go along with the—darn right it was. Because that helped alienate the base significantly. And when Gingrich first agreed to that deal and then walked away from it, that’s when the base said, Ooh, terrible. You’re breaking your promise. It was terrible. You can’t make a promise like that, though. But the president did something very good substantively when he did that. He put those caps in, that’s the deal he got. And that has enabled us to overcome the deficit and severely curtail and restrict spending. Even some of the economic writers are writing today that that budget deal is responsible, has played a large part in the prosperity we’re enjoying today. But politically, it was costly. Because that 'read my lips' had been such a major part of—
"...When we were out there at my ranch, he was asking me to come over, but that was when Perot got out of the race. He got out in July, you remember? And we called him from one of these military units from the stream where we were catching fish. And the President talked to him and said, You know, I’m sorry you’re out, and I just want you to know I’d love to have your support, and I think we’re closer on principles and values than you are to the other side, and…
"Have you heard that story? He wanted to go to Vietnam, because he felt sure there were some live Americans there. He came in and made the request to the Reagan administration. We looked into it really thoroughly, the Defense Department and everybody else, and concluded, first, that there were absolutely not any live Americans—and they’d been going after this issue for years—and secondly, that it would be a mistake for Perot to go over there, given the state of our relationship with Vietnam. President Reagan made the decision that he shouldn’t go, and we’re sitting in the Oval Office, and it’s just the President and Vice President and me. And President Reagan says, I don’t think he should go. He said, You guys are from Texas. You know him. Why don’t you tell him? Well, I didn’t know him, and the Vice President did. He said, I know him. He’s a good friend. He was a friend of the Vice President’s. He had helped the Vice President in his other races, and so the vice president called him up and said, I’m sorry, Ross, but President Reagan doesn’t think it would be, you know, we don’t think it’s a good—
"Vice President Bush called him because I didn’t know him. I never had talked to him in my life. And said no, it’s not something that we— And he shot the messenger is what happened. He held a big grudge about that. That was part of it. And then you know he went out after doing what he did in ’92 and went out and opposed George W. in his race for governor in ’94, and I don’t know what he did in ’98. I think he may even have done something against George W. in ’98. He did something against Jeb in Florida. He’s a bitter guy. It’s a personal thing. Personality thing."
Read more here.
Bruce Reed, Bill Clinton domestic policy advisor:
“Perot was a very helpful influence on the ’92 debate. Despite the fact that he was an odd bird, he was onto something. He was concerned about the deficit. He had tapped into Americans’ concerns about how Washington was broken. Clinton’s natural instincts were in that direction. He had some of the same feelings. He had a fair amount of gubernatorial contempt for Washington.…
"There was considerable debate taking place in June, before the Vice President was picked, about whether we should we be aiming for a majority or a plurality. There were advocates of what we called the 34 percent solution. … I think that was his first instinct, that if it was going to be a three-way race, he felt that our best shot was to make sure that our 34 percent showed up. I think that influenced his views on who would be the right vice presidential pick. The New Democrats had set about from the outset to expand the party’s appeal. We thought a 34 percent solution was a disaster, that if we aimed for 34, we’d get 25. That was limiting Clinton’s appeal in a self-defeating way.
"It was a parlor game. There was no way of knowing whether Perot was going to go the distance and whether we could win the reform votes back from him. Thankfully, Clinton dismissed the 34 percent solution out of hand. He felt that that was a false choice. There was nothing about what he was saying to the swing voters that was going to alienate the 34 percent.…
“I wouldn’t call him a wonk, but he had a detailed platform. He had a book. He was talking about a couple of real problems, mostly the deficit, but he was a big advocate of campaign and lobby reform, changing the culture of Washington. He had charts. So he was—like Tsongas, like Clinton—preaching specifics. As it turned out, of the three of them, Clinton was the only gifted communicator. The other guys just weren’t regular guys. But Perot definitely both reinforced the importance of dealing with real issues and reinforced the desire to change Washington, which ultimately worked entirely to our favor."
Read more here.
Former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson (R):
“Then came Ross Perot. We tried to talk him out of it. I called him and said, Why are you doing this, Ross? [imitating Perot’s speaking style] George lied to me twice. That’s what he did; he lied to me. I then know he did.
"I went back to George [Bush, senior] and said, ‘He’s not going to get out.’ George said, ‘Why not?’ ‘Well, I guess that’s it.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you go talk to him?’ George said, ‘He lied to me twice.’ I never found out what the two lies were that crossed each other, but one of them was when Perot went to Vietnam. George had said now don’t get involved in any prisoner exchange or try to bring anybody back and then Perot did. That embarrassed George. I don’t know the other one.”
Dr. Paul Martin: "Let me follow up on a point that you did raise, which was the sense that Ross Perot ran as a personal attack against George Bush, senior, to personally upset Bush’s reelection."
Simpson: "I believe that. I don’t know the reasons, because Perot never told me. I had said to George, Do you want me to call Perot? I think Bob [Dole] may have done it too. I said, I’ll call him. I did. I spent about 20 or 30 minutes. I’d met him before. [imitating Perot again] ‘Well, you know, got to do it. Nobody is going to lift the old hood.’ He had all those phrases: lift the lid, what’s under there, let’s get that engine going again. He just said to me, ‘No, I’m not going to get out.’ I think there was an antipathy there. They were Texans. They’d been in some business activities. I’m sure there were hundreds of opportunities for their relationship to go awry, and it did. Damned if I know what it was. But he surely defeated Bush—27 percent of the people in Maine voted for Perot and Wyoming was second, with 25 percent voting for Perot, and he got 20 percent across the nation. Those are big numbers."
Read more here.
Eileen Baumgartner, President Clinton's staff director of the House Budget Committee:
“What I saw in ’92 was that the ’92 presidential race was defined by Ross Perot. He educated the American public on the budget…In 1992 Ross Perot put information out there that made it comfortable for people. He gave the American public ownership of the budget process in a way they hadn’t had before. They didn’t get the tax side; he never focused on it—he just did the spending side—so they didn’t really learn that side, but they got much more aggressive with their members.”
“I had a map in [Rep.] Martin [Sabo's] office once that showed where Ross Perot had more than 25 percent of the vote or whatever; there were dots in all these districts around the country. He just went right up the Mississippi. I was born 20 miles west of the Mississippi. I looked at these dots all up and down the country, right up through the middle of the country. There were pockets in the Northeast, and pockets around where he had these big votes. It was very interesting to look at. Then I realized why I had thought he was so important, because he was really affecting voters that way.
“I don’t know that he persuaded voters. I think he tapped into a voter frustration. I think the electorate had the feeling already, but they didn’t quite know how to influence it and were frustrated. What happened was that they learned enough; they really learned a lot from him. His stuff was good. It was correct. He used data. They got evidence. You can always work with evidence.”
Read more here.
Stanley Greenberg, Bill Clinton pollster:
“I did have a section on the Perot project, on what is happening there, and how they’re reacting to all this. It was important because Perot voters wanted investment rather than deficit reduction. Perot voters were younger, blue collar, actually much more concerned about the economy. A job-centered, economic investment agenda was actually more important to them than deficit reduction.
“But the Perot project had us very focused on the fact that we had to be reformist. That was the key to them, not the deficits. It was really being outsiders cleaning up the place and cutting government waste....
"Perot voters were very skeptical of government. I would fault us for—not on the policy side, because it’s complex rather than big government. I would fault us for being less sensitive to its vulnerability on that attack and less effective in responding to that attack."
Read more here.
Roger Altman, Clinton economic policy advisor:
“…at the time I just didn’t take Perot seriously. I knew a lot about Perot, having been heavily involved in Wall Street for many years. I thought Perot was a flake, I think Perot is a flake, so I didn’t take him terribly seriously. Now in retrospect did his presence in the campaign serve to move the candidates a bit to the right on deficit reduction and so forth? I think it did.
Dr. Russel Riley: "There were a lot of people who did take that candidacy very seriously though, right?"
Altman: I think it was serious as a political thing, meaning you had three candidates instead of two and of course, the dynamic was different. You had three candidates on the stage during the debates and so forth.
I believe Perot’s presence helped Clinton because Perot kept saying how messed up the country was, so that actually helped the challenger rather than the incumbent. I think Clinton was better served by virtue of Perot’s presence in the campaign than without it. I just never took him seriously as a candidate. Is he going to become President? No. Would I have considered moving to Switzerland if he did become President? Yes. So I didn’t take him seriously except as in a sort of inner political context.”
Read more here.
Thomas "Mack" McLarty, Clinton chief of staff:
“He was very skillful in the debates. We went to St. Louis, I remember going to St. Louis again, we served the city, so it was a natural trip for me. Clinton debated Perot and Bush there, with Jim Lehrer being the moderator. Clinton had, by that time, a pretty good campaign staff built up, was willing to campaign, obviously had already gotten the nomination. Bush flew in on Air Force One, with Secret Service and everything that the president has, appropriately.
"Perot came in with one aide, and they asked him how he got staff for this, and he said, ‘I talked to my barber before I came up.’ You know, he had that short haircut. There was this kind of anti-approach, Perot was so quick on the one-liners. He was very good, very smart, and bold. He was very confident. I don’t think he could use his charts in the debate, but he was on the attack. It’s always easier to attack than defend. So he was very good.
"On NAFTA he had some strong feelings. He had listened to Pat Choate, who had written a book about NAFTA, and some of his points had some validity. I thought, on balance, he didn’t have the correct position. Of course, it played to his political constituency as well, so he was influenced by that, as you’d expect him to be. Jack Quinn, I believe Jack was the Vice President’s Chief of Staff at that point, had been general counsel. I think he actually had the original thought of the Vice President debating Perot, and the Vice President embraced that, and they announced it to the President and me.”
Read more here.
Michael Kantor, Clinton U.S. Trade Representative; Secretary of Commerce:
“The first debate, if you remember, Ross Perot stole the show. Ross, interesting personality, he didn’t do a walk through like everybody else did. He didn’t have a lot of staff. This is the God’s honest truth. It’s about 30 minutes before the debate and Clinton is being made up by a makeup person, and a few of us are sitting there, talking to him. [knock knock] ‘Clinton in there?’ [laughter] It’s Ross Perot, and I go to the door and I say, ‘Ross, you know he’s getting made up.’ He says, ‘Mickey, could I talk to you?’ ‘Sure.’ He said, ‘How do I walk in here?’ Absolute God’s honest truth.
I said, ‘Well, Ross, haven’t they told you?’ He said, ‘No, no one’s told me anything.’ So I walked him through it, told him how he walked in, what he did. He absolutely was walking as loose as he appeared to be. This to him was just another show, just another thing. I think that President Bush and then-Governor Clinton were probably too uptight, too tense, this was so important to them.”
Read more here.
Richard Siewert, Jr., Clinton press secretary:
“Clinton occasionally felt about Perot about the way he felt about Tsongas. He couldn’t believe that somehow Perot had become an intellectual heavyweight and the truth-teller in the campaign when he felt he owned that territory in many ways. That was a source of enormous frustration.
In terms of dealing with him specifically, I think we learned a lot from the way he handled the press. He didn’t have much of a press operation. He ended up being burned a bit by the press at the end. But his way of connecting with people was through these presentations with the charts and all. A lot of people think Clinton invented some of these things that later became the town hall meeting and the going directly to the voters and communicating directly with them.”
Read more here.
Frank Greer, Clinton media consultant:
“I always say that in politics you have to be ready to take advantage of your opponents’ mistakes—George Bush, for some reason, decided to attack Ross Perot, and Ross Perot attacked George Bush. Remember, there were all these accusations about his daughter’s wedding and there was all this conspiracy about how the president was interfering in his family. They were just going at it. Folks in the campaign wanted to get in the middle of it, but I said no.”
Read more here.
Roy Neel, Al Gore’s 1992 campaign manager:
“Some of the analysts felt that Perot getting back in the race was a huge boost to us, because most of the Perot votes would not have gone to Clinton. But our polling showed something very different, that it really had very little difference. That the final numbers would have been about the same: Clinton’s numbers would have been higher and Bush’s number would have been higher too, but the final result would have been about the same. I mean, we loved having Perot in the race for obvious reasons. And he was entertaining, too. That Stockdale thing was just, I’ll never forget Stockdale saying, ‘Who am I and why am I here?’ You’ve never heard a more innocent, heartfelt, candid statement by a candidate.
“I thought you were going to ask about the Perot factor later on with the Gore-Perot debate on Larry King, but it was background noise in the campaign. The press loved having him. It drove the Bush people crazy because it was just one more bit of noise they had to compete with. Bush was on the ropes because he was trying to scramble and catch up and get out an economic message, primarily. It was just lost because Perot’s message was all about the budget and the economy. It made it possible for Clinton to look downright statesmanlike, to stand over here and say, ‘This is very entertaining but here’s really what we have to do’ and to appeal to centrists or most people who were just looking for somebody who sounded intelligent.
"It was a good thing for us to have Perot in the race, but we always knew it was a Clinton-Bush race and the final numbers were going to reflect that. So the final numbers were probably not affected greatly. Now, political scientists may have better information and can argue with that.
“…The problem was that Ross Perot represented a major roadblock for us in passing NAFTA. He had a big foghorn. He tapped into a small but deep and passionate opposition to a free trade agreement like this and he couldn’t be ignored. When the invitation came forth from Larry King to have Perot on, King’s people figured it out, Let’s get someone to come on from the White House. It was easy to determine that the President shouldn’t do it, that was not a presidential activity. The obvious suspects were Bentsen or any number of people. But Al figured out that it was a big enough deal, and he had a lot of self-confidence that he could do this.
"He also saw Perot as being vulnerable. It would be easy, if it was handled deftly, for Perot to look like a nut. You wouldn’t have to go at him hard personally, but just that he was so volatile that he would rattle and the gloves would just come off if he were challenged in a certain way. Gore very quickly volunteered to do it. There were a number of people on Clinton’s staff who strongly opposed it for a variety of reasons. None of those people could be found the next day. Some of the people who I know opposed it and pushed hard against it were out there talking to the press saying they had counseled the President, they felt like from the beginning that Gore was the guy to do this.”
Read more here.
Clayton Yeutter, George H. W. Bush Secretary of Agriculture:
“Had Ross Perot not been in that campaign, I believe President Bush would have won, notwithstanding the economy. Not only did he take votes, but he battered President Bush in the campaign. It was personally vindictive, as you could tell. Had it been another Republican candidate I doubt that Ross Perot would have run. When Buchanan opened the door, Perot was quick to run through it. Buchanan went by the wayside rather quickly in ’92, but Perot came rushing through the door with a lot of money at his command. This was a long-standing grudge with George Bush, and it was payback time…
“…There was no love lost between those two and hadn’t been for quite a long time. It was easy to observe the personal vindictiveness that came through in the Perot effort. Perot may well have had other motivations too, hopefully some legitimate ones, but there was no doubt that one motivation was to put a knife through George Bush’s political heart, which he did.
"So you had to take his campaign seriously because anybody who has that much money to spend in a campaign is going to get some attention, which he did, and he got a lot of votes. As you well know, third-party candidacies usually don’t last; they get the maximum vote the first time around and then they drop off. That’s what happened with both Perot and Buchanan. But 1992 was Perot’s year.
"The status of the economy fit that kind of protest movement in 1992. Protests don’t do as well when things are looking good. But in ’92 lots of voters were unhappy and frightened. And when you get a candidacy that appeals to that sense of trepidation and fright, it can draw a lot of votes. Perot’s sucking sound of jobs disappearing was demagoguery, but effective. Perot got a lot of attention with that, though it was nonsense.”
Read more here.
Sigmund Roch, assistant to President Bush; Ambassador to Iceland:
“I thought the president could have performed better [in the 1992 debate]. But putting Perot in that setting ruined the concept. It was like having a little gnat buzzing around and it took away from the stature of the presidency. All of a sudden it brought Perot to a level that was presidential, and it just took away from us.
“…we had a message that appealed to our base, which also was eroding because of Perot. We were losing our base. Those votes weren’t Clinton votes, those were our votes basically. Then we had to go after Clinton and it was complicated. We had only so many media dollars and yet we had to combat an active, ongoing organization—not in 50 states, but close to it—by Perot on the ground. He was the first of the third party candidates that could really make a difference in a modern Presidential election.”
Read more here.
Alan Blinder, member of Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors and vice chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve:
“I think it was Perot and other people—like [Robert] Rubin and others talking to him in the transition period—that really convinced president-elect Clinton that he had to elevate deficit reduction to, if not number one on his priority list, at least close to number one—which had not been the case in the campaign.”
Dr. Russel Riley: “You mentioned earlier, in an instance with respect to budget balancing, the favorable influence that Ross Perot had played. Perot had a different kind of influence in this [NAFTA] question."
Blinder: "It was the giant sucking sound. That’s what it was about NAFTA. So part of our job was fighting the giant sucking sound argument. We were pleased as punch to do that. We did it with great gusto and enthusiasm. It’s baloney, complete baloney.… Perot’s was the argument that we were going to lose a huge number of jobs by entering into a free trade agreement with an economy the size of Los Angeles. That was roughly the magnitude. The economy of Mexico is roughly the size of the economy of Los Angeles. It was completely absurd.”
Read more here.