Now that Donald Trump has pledged to the Republican Party and declared that he will not run as an independent, there has been a lull in comparisons between his campaign and Ross Perot’s 1992 effort. That’s a shame. There’s much to be mined by comparing the two billionaires.
Like Trump, Perot built his campaign on opposition to bad trade deals. He also harnessed public anger at the political ruling class and the special-interest money that fueled their campaigns. Like Trump, Perot boasted that he took no outside money and pointed to his pledge to self-finance as proof that he couldn’t be bought.
Perot was the first talk-show candidate, effectively announcing on Larry King Live in February 1992. He took advantage of the venue, where he could speak with less of a filter. He also bought infomercials to speak directly to voters. Trump, the first reality-show candidate, has taken advantage of a similar media environment that allows him to speak freely to voters.
When Perot spoke of the problems in Washington, he offered Trump-like certainty about how easily they could be solved by someone who had come from the real world of business. “I can solve the problem of the national debt without working up a sweat,” he said. “It’s just that simple.”
One of the great moments of his outsider campaign came in the first debate with Bill Clinton and President George H.W. Bush when both men suggested Perot lacked the political experience necessary to make progress. Perot responded by saying it’s true he didn’t have any experience. “I don’t have any experience in gridlock government, where nobody takes any responsibility for anything and everybody blames everybody else. I don't have any experience in creating the worst public school system in the industrialized world, the most violent, crime-ridden society in the industrialized world. But I do have a lot of experience in getting things done. ... I’ve got a lot of experience in not taking 10 years to solve a 10-minute problem.”
If Trump doesn’t steal this line of argument for the next debate, he should dock his own pay.
Despite the similarities, it’s the differences between Perot and Trump that are the most illuminating. Perot enjoyed a healthy ego like Trump, but unlike the real estate magnate, he ran on a platform of something more than his skill. As an answer to the public dissatisfaction with Washington politicians, Perot offered a specific reform agenda that included term limits for members of Congress, a balanced budget amendment, and national referenda in which voters would be allowed a direct say in making laws by putting them on a national ballot.
Perot was selling a specific set of guardrails that would ensure a stronger relationship between lawmakers and the people. Trump is offering a one-time personality sale. Voters just have to hope that he gets it right and that Congress snaps into shape. Perot was selling a system that was in keeping with the founding principles of the country (and concerns of the founders), and it would guard against the megalomania of politicians. Trump’s candidacy encourages the cult of personality by putting the whole bundle in one candidate.
Both Perot’s and Trump’s plans for government mirrored their personalities and their business careers. Trump is founded on Trump, who credits bravado as a key tool in selling his prowess. “The final key to the way I promote is bravado,” Trump wrote in The Art of the Deal. “I play to people’s fantasies. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts.” His presidential campaign operates on a similar principle.
Perot, on the other hand, was a just-the-facts businessman who made his fortune by selling his information technology equipment and services company to General Motors. In keeping with that vision and his Eagle Scout and U.S. Naval Academy training, Perot was addicted to facts. His chart-laden infomercials sought to inform voters on every particular, from the size of the U.S. trade deficit to the imbalance in CEO pay.
Perot believed in making a painstaking argument to the American people. Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t think facts are so important. It must be said that he has offered the most specific immigration plan of any of the candidates since they made their campaign declarations, but his general principle about the relationship between what he must tell voters and what they expect he’ll do is pretty loose. “I think the press is more eager to see it than the voters, to be honest,” Trump said last month in Iowa when asked when he might release a detailed immigration plan. “I think the voters like me, they understand me, they know I’m going to do the job. ... I think they trust me. I think they know I’m going to make good deals for them.”
In 2000 Trump flirted with running for president as a candidate of the Reform Party that Perot founded in 1995. That a third party could live on beyond the Perot candidacy was a testament to the fact that there were ideas that could live on past the man promoting them. That’s another way in which the two campaigns are different.