H. Ross Perot, RIP

H. Ross Perot died on Tuesday at age 89, and although one is always well advised not to speak ill of the dead we think he had a largely negative effect on the country’s history.
There was plenty to be said for the colorful character, and it should be acknowledged. Although he was the son of a prominent and politically-connected cotton trader in his beloved home state of Texas he became a multi-billionaire by his own considerable smarts and inexhaustible energy. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy he found himself bored with peacetime service, and left the Navy as soon as his Annapolis obligations had been met. He took a job as a salesman for the International Business Machines Corporation that then dominated the nascent computer industry, and was by all accounts extraordinarily successful at it, once meeting his yearly quota in three weeks. Perot stuck around IBM long enough to learn everything he needed to know about the computer biz, and in 1962 he left to start his own business.
Texas-based Electronic Data Systems proved a very profitable company, mostly from a number of sizable contracts with the federal government. He used much of his share of the profits to become an early and significant investor in what became Apple Computers, which proved even more profitable, and in 1988 he created Perot Systems Corporation, which further increased his multi-billion dollar wealth. He increased his already considerable fame after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 when he claimed to have raised a mercenary army to rescue to EDS employees who had been there working on a contract with overthrown Iranian government. The story was apocryphal, but was rivetingly told in the best-selling book “Wings of Angels” and then on a highly rated made-for-television movie.
Like so many other self-made men Perot eventually came to worship his creator, however, and by 1992 had decided that he was the best possible person to be President of the United States. He ran as an independent, with a small but enthusiastic following doing the legwork to get him enough signatures to be on the ballot in every state, and he was included on the televised debates with major party nominees, and he wound up winning 19 percent of the popular, the biggest share for a third-party candidate since former President Theodore Roosevelt and his Bull Moose party’s 27 percent in 1912.
Just as Roosevelt’s run wound costing the eminently conservative Republican William Howard Taff re-election and handed the White House over to prototypical progressive President Woodrow Wilson, Perot took enough votes from quintessentially establishment Republican President George H.W. Bush to give cleaned-up hippie Democratic President Bill Clinton the office with a mere plurality.
Perot’s platform called for higher taxes but huge cuts in social programs and promised balanced budgets and the full payment of the federal debt, which was at that time an obsession for most Republicans. He also ran on the argument that he was untainted by any previous political experience, and that the billions he had in the bank were proof he was smart enough to run anything, which then as now is somehow persuasive to a lot of Republicans. His foreign policy positions were more vague, and he’d been critical of the first Gulf War, although it was quickly won and established a Pax Americana in the Middle East that would last several years, but Reagan and Bush had won the Cold War and no one seemed to care much about foreign policy.
The first President Bush was known for his cautious if clumsy language and patrician bearing and impeccable public service credentials and stay-the-course leadership, but an increasingly rural and blue collar and anti-establishment Republican party was growing weary of all that, and with his cheap haircuts and jug ears and folksy language and authentic Texas twang Perot provided a stark contrast. He might have peeled off a few votes from Clinton, but we believed at the time and still do that most of his 19 percent would have won the Republicans a rare fourth presidential election victory.
Perot then transformed his ad hoc political organization into the Reform Party, which mostly attracted the sorts of Republicans who thought that the Republican party had become effete. The Grand Old Party had recently won the Cold War and created a large and long-lasting economic expansions, but then as now many Republicans felt it wasn’t protecting them from the oftentimes disruptive economic transformations that resulted from free trade and new technologies, and felt a sense that those establishment know-it-alls with the impeccable credentials didn’t identify with them, and they were looking to disrupt even the most venerable of America’s institutions.
Perot ran as the Reform Party nominee in ’96, but a truce between Clinton and the newly-installed House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his fellow firebrand Republicans installed in the mid-term elections resulted in a balanced budget, which deprived Perot of one of his signature issues. The second time around he finished with 8.4 percent of the vote, and although that probably didn’t cost Republican nominee Sen. Bob Dole the election it might have peeled off enough Democratic votes that Clinton had to settle for another plurality.
The Reform Party stuck around for a short while after Perot’s departure from public life, but long enough to do further damage. Former boa-clad professional wrestler and bona fide nutcase conspiracy theorist Jesse Ventura became governor of Minnesota for tumultuous turn ¬†on the Reform Party ticket, and paleo-conservative Pat Buchanan used the party’s presidential nomination to spread his paranoid populism and his admittedly fascist-friendly “America First” foreign policy. Outright racists such as former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and a large number of erstwhile Republicans with class and race resentments of an establishment they just knew was out to get them found a home there, and a brash self-proclaimed billionaire named Donald Trump made his first foray into politics when he sought the party’s nomination.
Perot was quite right to warn about the federal debt, and deserves credit for suggesting that an unpopular tax hike and painful spending cuts might be required to pay it off, but it doesn’t seem to have had any lasting influence on either party. We thought his xenophobic protectionism was wrong then and still think it’s wrong as President Donald Trump pursues it, and we retain the same opinion about both Perot’s and Trump’s isolationist foreign policy instincts.
We wish a Perot an eternally happy afterlife, and freely acknowledge he was one of those rare individuals who left his mark on history, but he always appreciated blunt talk, so we feel free to say he had a mostly corrosive influence. He not only got Clinton elected and helped him get reelected, but he fostered a paranoid and conspiracy-theorizing suspicion of well-credentialed public servants and venerable political and economic institutions that persists in the Republican party to this day. The Democrats have their own paranoid and conspiracy-theorizing elements with crazy protectionist and isolation ideas, on the other hand, so as we wish Perot a fond farewell we’ll be hoping the center still holds.

— Bud Norman

The Race Is On

America and the rest of the world aren’t yet halfway through 2019, but the 2020 presidential election is already underway. Today brings the first Democratic primary debate between ten candidates, tomorrow brings another debate between yet another ten candidates, and so far as we can tell there are at least another five or or six Democratic contenders who are left out of the stages.
We’ll be watching both debates with rapt interest, as we’re slightly hopeful the damned Democrats don’t come up with someone who isn’t so loonily far left that he or she can’t beat President Donald Trump. It’s only a slight hope, though, as the damned Democrats these strike us as arguably even crazier than Trump and the damned Republicans. That very crowded field of Democratic contenders also worries us, even if there are a few among them we could tolerate.
Last time around there were a record-setting 17 candidates in the Republican primary, which meant that a candidate could be leading the field by with a mere 10 percent in the polls. As a former reality show star on television Trump had better name recognition than any of the distinguished senators and governors and successful business executives he was running against, which earned him the podium on the center stage of the debates, and his flair for show biz somehow overwhelmed all the more carefully deliberated and dignifiedly presented arguments of his lesser-known but more distinguished co-stars. He wound up winning a series of state primary races with a plurality of the vote, which fortified his front-runner status, but he never won a majority of the Republican primary votes until all the other contenders had dropped out. Since then at least 90 percent of the Republican party has been willing to defend any damned dumb thing he might say or do, and this time around the Democrats seem likely to make the same mistake.
For now the front runner in the Democratic race is Joe Biden, who was a longtime senator from Delaware and vice president during the administration of President Barack Obama, which is somehow well remembered by about 90 percent of those damned Democrats, and we figure that’s mostly due to reality show name recognition. Biden is gaffe prone, though, and doesn’t seem to have Trump’s uncanny knack for turning gaffes into public relations bonanzas, and all of the 25 or 26 other Democratic contenders are already subtly attacking him from the left flank, so at this point we’re not placing any bets on the current favorite. His latest gaffe was talking about how he used to strike deals on non-racial matters with the segregationist Democratic Senators who used to exist at the beginning of his very long political career, and although much of the Democratic party and the mainstream media were outraged it sounded quite reasonable to our Party of Lincoln Republican ears. The most flamboyant of the even further left Democrats could well wind up winning enough pluralities in the early primaries and eventually wind up in the White House with 90 percent of the damned Democrats defending any damned dumb thing he or she might say or do.
The only thing we can count on is that for the second time in our lives we’ll be voting for none of the above, and holding out faint hope the republic somehow survives.

— Bud Norman

Those Post-Labor Day Blues

One of the quadrennial cliches of presidential election years is that the American public doesn’t start paying attention to any of that political stuff until after Labor Day. We’ve always wondered if that were really so, given the usual ubiquity of politics, and in this crazy election year we can’t believe that anybody has been able to avert his gaze from the spectacle. If you are so lucky as to be just now tuning in the presidential race, though, suffice to say that it’s been dreadful.
Believe it or not, the two major party nominees are Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Donald J. Trump, the worst choices that America’s longstanding and once-venerable two-party system has ever puked up. We are slightly heartened that enough of the public has been paying attention that a vast majority regards both as dishonest and corrupt and utterly unfit for the office, but it looks as if one or the other will wind up president nonetheless. As we enter the supposedly crucial post-Labor Day stretch of the race Clinton is still clinging to a slight lead in the average of polls, but the unprecedented unpopularity of both candidates makes it daunting for even the most daring pundits to offer a prediction.
Those civic-minded sorts who take a post-Labor Day interest in the issues needn’t both boning up on the candidates’ stands, as they tend to shift from day to day. The Democrat can be counted on to take the typical Democratic positions, but not to an extent that would upset her Wall Street backers, which is why she had such trouble beating a full-blown nutcase and self-described socialist as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders during the primaries. The Republican takes all sorts of un-Republican stands on issues ranging from free trade to the Iraq War to socialized medicine, which partially explains how his pluralities more easily defeated a large field of far more qualified challengers, and he’ll routinely switch sides and insist that he’d been on the same side all along.
Neither candidate seems at all concerned about the nation’s unaffordable debt, much less expressed a willingness to address the entitlement programs that is driving it, and both seem to have the disastrous belief they can expand the economy enough to solve that problem their own brilliant micro-management. The Democrat has a long foreign record in public that includes four years as Secretary of State, which were disastrous in countless ways, the Republican has no public service record at all but routinely lies about his past pronouncements and spouts all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories and has openly mused about not fulfilling America’s treaty obligations. Both are protectionist, although the Democrat was sort of forced into that by her full-blown nutcase of a self-describes socialist challenger and probably won’t go so far with it as to upset her Wall Street backers, while the Republican seems to have arrived at this very un-Republican position on his own and has consistently stuck with his belief that any trade deal in the history of the country he didn’t negotiate is a loser. The Democrat is more friendly to illegal immigration than the Republican, but by the time she gets done “triangulating” and he gets done “softening” that might prove a wash, and in any case it doesn’t seem the all-important issue it was back during the Republican primaries.
Our guess is that it comes down to which nominee the public finds more personally loathsome, and we can’t blame any pundit who declines to guess how that comes out. Which is basically where we find our country on this day after Labor Day, when the public supposedly starts paying serious attention to the such matters. There are also the Libertarian Gary Johnson and The Green Party’s Jill Stein in the mix, and although neither of them will be the next president they do make the race even tighter, and somehow even weirder, which is saying something, but that just makes a pundit’s job all the harder.
We’ll probably wind up writing in some pointless protest vote, and leaving it to the rest of you to decide which candidate is more loathsome, but at least you’re caught up to this point, more or less.

— Bud Norman

The 45 Percent Solution

We’ve been poring over all the recent numbers from the Republican presidential race, trying to decide if the party’s metaphorical glass is one third-empty or two-thirds full. In either case, it’s not at all where we’d hoped it would be.
There’s no longer any way of denying that the front-runner is Donald J. Trump, the billionaire real-estate-and-gambling-and-professional-wrestling-and-reality-show mogul, which most certainly is not what we’d hoped for. After a double-digit win in the supposed anti-insurgent “firewall” state of South Carolina he’s two-for-three in actual voting, and following an even bigger win in New Hampshire and a respectable second-place in Iowa, and with similar leads in national and upcoming state polls, he’s looking formidable.
Still, we are not yet ready to abandon all hope. As formidable as Trump might seem, he’s only got 61 of the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination, there are still 47 states and some territories yet to vote, and thus far Trump seems stuck at the two-thirds plurality that has provided him two seeming landslides in a seven-way race. Given that the Republican front-runner is regarded unfavorably by most Republicans, and fares even worse than Hillary Clinton among the general public, which is saying something, he’ll have to find something pretty outrageous to bolster that total in a two-or-three-way race.
Trump has already bounced former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush out of the race, which deprives him of a favorite scapegoat for that darned establishment that folks are so riled up about these days, and which deprives him of the tens of millions of dollars that Bush and his supporters were for some reason spending on attack ads against Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who wound up in a virtual tie with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in South Carolina. It’s hard to imagine anyone who preferred Bush switching his support to Trump, and if Rubio had added most of Bush’s numbers to his own, which he would have, since he’s stuck with that darned “establishment” label at this point, and if he could have picked up the votes of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who took second in New Hampshire and is still hanging in after a shellacking in South Carolina, with more to come, it would have been a win for Rubio in South Carolina. If Dr. Ben Carson had gracefully bowed out most of his votes would have likely gone to Cruz, who relishes the same iconoclastic trouble-maker reputation as Trump and makes the same pitch to evangelical Christians, many of whom for some reason or another prefer the thrice-married and proudly adulterous gambling mogul, so Cruz might have also contended in a three-way race.
The race might not winnow down to two or three by the time the delegates start piling up, which is soon, but if it does come down to Trump and Rubio and Cruz almost anything could happen. There will be some very close races in several states, with Trump’s accusations of cheating and threats of lawsuits following any narrow loss, either Rubio or Cruz could commit some disaster blunder that will derail his candidacy, although at this point we do discount the possibility that even a threatened shooting on Fifth Avenue will knock Trump below that two-third margin, and so anyone who gets very far past that two-thirds mark could win a clear plurality of the primary and caucus votes.
Anything less than 45 percent, an elusive Nielsen rating that has thus far proved beyond the grasp of even Trump, might not be enough to get to the still far-away number of 1,237 delegates. If you don’t have that you don’t win on the first ballot, and on the second ballot all the delegates are free to do whatever they want, and it’s and old-fashioned convention from way back even before our time. Trump’s mastery of “The Art of the Deal” will be sorely put to test as he deals with at least a majority of Republican delegates who are pretty much the same “establishment” that Trump has promised to tar and feather, even if they do want Cruz, who has been denounced as a “liar” and “nasty guy” by Trump, and if it comes to that it will be the first reality television show in ages that she’s been glued to.
It could wind up with Trump versus Clinton, the former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State and presumptive First Woman President of the United States whose reputation for honesty and integrity is as abysmal as Trump’s and who seems to have vaunted herself back into the Democratic party’s front-runner status with an inexplicable win in a convoluted and small turn-out Nevada caucus. Both the left and the right and especially that mushy middle are all so riled up about big donor fat cats and corruptible politicians and those know-it-alls who think they know how to run an entire are about to have a choice between one of those big donor fat cats and one of the corruptible politicians that he’s paid off with big bucks and public praise and an invitation to his latest wedding, both of them have plenty of red-flag career catastrophes in their past, both offer themselves as models of competence and high moral standards, and that might be the choice.
In which case, we are reminded of an old Woody Allen commencement speech bit, where he told the students: “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

— Bud Norman