Is Ross Perot plotting a return to the national stage in time for the 2004 elections? Judging from a well-written 95-page book proposal making its way through the New York publishing circuit, a copy of which arrived unbidden in my e-mail, the crazy aunt in the basement wants to sing again.
For connoisseurs of political entertainment, "America the Broken: How to Reform and Revive the Greatest Democracy Ever Known," which Perot is proposing to coauthor with James Champy, bestselling author of "Reengineering the Corporation," promises everything we miss about ol' jug ears. The "short, intense book" will be "liberally furnished with charts, of the sort Ross Perot used in his 1992 campaign." The "giant sucking sound" of jobs going overseas is back, only this time the bugaboo is white-collar knowledge industry jobs, not manufacturing. There will be stories of how Ross forced Texas educators, kicking and screaming, to reform their public schools, and homilies about solving complicated problems like the healthcare crisis by getting "the best qualified people in the country to put their heads together." And for those of us who always suspected self-interest lay at the root of Perot's prescriptions, his chapter on cutting government waste includes an artfully buried plug from the computer magnate for requiring Washington's myriad agencies to adopt compatible electronic systems.
But should we really just treat Ross as a bad joke? My read of his proposal is that he is serious about addressing the country's economic problems, furious at the GOP's irresponsible tax cuts and anxious to return to the national stage, possibly with some form of grass-roots movement by his side. For anyone who remembers how little respect Perot has shown for the Bush family over the years -- not only did he break Poppy Bush's hold on the White House, in 1994 he went out of his way to publicly endorse the Democratic gubernatorial opponents of both George W. in Texas and Jeb in Florida -- there's an intriguing subtext to all this: Ross may think that by launching this new effort in time for 2004 he can crack the Republican lock on power again, to stop the party's "radical agenda" and prevent a "fiscal disaster."
Perot and Champy's take on the current scene is quite pungent: "The United States loses 100,000 jobs a month. The recession won't go away. The stock market tanks. Great companies cook their books. Airlines fail. Foreign investors pull out. Healthcare doesn't work. Social Security is a mess. The space program is grounded. Homeland security is a jumble. Congress can't agree on a budget. And just as federal tax revenues plunge, leaving states in the lurch, the United States takes on huge new military costs across the planet, swelling an already soaring federal deficit and creating the biggest national debt in world history."
They argue that the great American superpower is in danger of becoming "superpowerless" because Americans have stopped being thrifty and self-reliant and given up on insisting that government effectively manage our common safety and prosperity. It's an argument that some Republicans and political moderates, like Concord Coalition head Pete Peterson and pundit Andrew Sullivan, have been raising as well of late, and may signal the same kind of fissure in the dominant Republican coalition that helped doom the first President Bush in 1992.
But will anyone bother to listen to Perot? After running for president in 1992 as an independent and garnering 19 percent of the vote, he had a brief moment of national prominence. For most of 1993, polls showed him running a close second to newly elected President Bill Clinton, and politicians of both parties rushed to Dallas to seek his support. Nearly 2 million Americans -- a number far larger than MoveOn.org's e-mail list -- became dues-paying members of United We Stand America, Perot's grass-roots lobby.
But it all came crashing down as Perot's paranoia, authoritarianism and sheer mendacity drove his volunteer movement back into the woodwork, a political implosion that disillusioned tens of thousands of public-spirited average citizens and badly damaged efforts to build any kind of independent politics in America. In 1996, Perot's bid to create a new political party devoted to government reform and deficit reduction garnered him only 8 percent of the presidential vote (failures that he conveniently avoids mentioning in the proposal while touting his 1992 success). By 2000, his Reform Party was a hollow, broken shell, abandoned by the angry middle-Americans who had been his base, and squabbled over by followers of Patrick Buchanan, Lenora Fulani, John Hagelin and other fringelets.
The first time was a tragedy for the millions of people who bought Perot's snake oil; the second time, farce; a third time, travesty? The language of his book proposal shows he's serious about re-igniting his crusade and maybe even rebuilding some kind of mass organization. "We have no intention of going to Washington as if we could change its cold hearts and closed minds all by ourselves," Perot and Champy write (emphasis added). Later, they add, "Nothing so impresses Congress as a sudden groundswell that threatens to wash a couple of hundred members out of office. Accordingly, we appeal to you, the American people, the one invincible force with the power to fix our country. Only if you join us can we succeed; only with your help can our country keep its freedom."
All of this is plainly reminiscent of Perot's hopes for United We Stand America. But as someone who has spent hundreds of hours interviewing the leaders and activists of that now-defunct organization, I can say with some confidence that the last person those people -- many of whom still worry about the issues Perot wants to raise -- will follow into battle is Ross the Boss.
Perhaps we should blame Washington Post columnist David Broder for conjuring the dead back to life with his recent column on the metastasizing government deficit, "Where is Ross Perot Now That We Need Him?" Indeed, Perot's agent makes neat use of that piece in her covering note on the proposal. But Perot is mad about more than Bush's tax cuts, which he clearly (and correctly) blames for blowing the budget hole wide open. He also thinks the country is awash in "waves of jingoism" since 9/11 and offers sane counsel for dealing with the threat of terrorism: "Avoid panic and judge the odds like poker players." Most refreshing, he's got no use for the Bush administration's efforts "to hobble the commissions appointed to investigate 9/11" and slams the USA PATRIOT Act for going too far. Perot, who played the libertarian when he ran for office but zealously policed the private lives of his employees, now attacks the government's holding incommunicado of American citizens Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi as the equivalent of the "Star Chamber trials of 17th century Britain or Josef Stalin's gulag."
"We, the people, must restore rational thought and sound management principles to our government," Perot and Champy write. It almost sounds good, until you remember Perot's penchant for irrational thought and military management principles. Perot refers to himself, "with all due modesty" as a "veteran change agent," but it's clear that what he's looking for is one more moment in the sun.
His agent is telling publishers that he will do a media blitz in conjunction with his book's publication, and says that Perot envisions a series of nonpartisan town hall forums, an echo of the old "electronic town halls" he used to tout when he was running for president. He's not running now, but with any luck his nasal twang could be driving Karl Rove crazy come next summer.