WOULD WE HAVE BEEN BETTER OFF WITH PEROT? An alternative history of America after 1992.

Author:Walker, Jesse
Position:HISTORY - Ross Perot
 
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THERE'S A PERSISTENT American fantasy of a CEO president: a corporate Cincinnatus uncorrupted by elected experience who steps in to right the ship of state through sheer executive will. In the 1980s, the chatter centered around Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca, who polled well but refused to run. In the '90s, it was Electronic Data Systems founder Ross Perot, who actually entered the ring. Our current president is also a businessman, and a lot of his fans seem to imagine him as the hyper-competent executive he played on The Apprentice rather than the bankruptcy-court regular he was in real life.

You might expect Donald Trump's performance in office to have taken the luster off the CEO-savior fantasy, if not universally then at least among Trump's critics. But at least one guy thinks we merely picked the wrong boss. Howard Schultz, having run Starbucks and the Seattle SuperSonics, is now flirting with the idea of adding America to his portfolio.

The most interesting member of that plutocratic quartet is surely Perot. That's partly because he picked the most interesting time to run. His initial campaign came in 1992, the first post--Cold War election. In that politically scrambled setting, the Texas independent quickly rose in the polls. By June he was firmly in the lead: According to Gallup, 39 percent of registered voters supported him, with 31 percent favoring Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush and just 25 percent backing Democratic nominee Bill Clinton.

Perot blew his chances when he petulantly pulled out of the race in July and then re-entered it in October, blaming his withdrawal on a hazily sketched GOP plot against him. After that, he seemed less like a competent manager ready to stabilize the nation and more like an erratic uncle with a collection of grievances. But he still got a respectable 19 percent of the popular vote, outperforming Clinton in Utah and Bush in Maine. When he ran again four years later, he got a bit more than 8 percent--substantially lower than his previous total, but still better than any other independent or third-party presidential candidate of the last half-century.

Folk memory vaguely recalls Perot's platforms and persona as "conservative," but in fact they were more of a mix. He was a protectionist, a deficit hawk, a foreign-policy dove (or at least more dovish than the two guys who beat him), and socially tolerant in a mind-your-own-business way. He had a strong technocratic streak too, which he would put on...

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