It was Ross Perot's 80th birthday on Monday, something I would have missed had his family not chipped in to buy a full page ad on the back of the Wall Street Journal's A section to celebrate. Say what you will about him, he's almost always entertaining. I miss the guy.
During the 1992 presidential campaign, Perot came out of nowhere and managed to force deficit reduction into the debate by sheer force of will and improbable charisma, colorfully needling Bill Clinton and President George H.W. Bush for their lack of seriousness and casting himself as the truth-teller.
Remember, this was a couple of years after the agonies of the 1990 budget summit and the resulting budget deal, which as Bruce Bartlett pointed out here recently, was a huge achievement. But the fact that Bush had broken his "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge to make the deal with Congress's Democratic majority made him a traitor to Republican conservatives such as Newt Gingrich, and the president ran from it like a scalded dog. The notion that he would want to go there again -- crazy. Bill Clinton would go on to become very serious indeed about deficit reduction once he became president, but as a candidate, he was squishy. Trying to make the numbers in his Putting People First campaign document add up was like trying to do math with Jell-O.
By comparison, the straight-talking businessman from Texas seemed like a model of clarity and resolve. Perot had a plan, and it was simple: He would cut $480 billion out of the deficit in four easy steps: $100 billion by cutting off Social Security benefits for rich guys like himself; $180 billion from waste, fraud and abuse; $100 billion in forced contributions from our Asian and European allies for defense costs; and the final $100 billion from modernizing IRS computers and streamlining tax collection. Do that and you've gotten rid of the deficit "without breaking a sweat," Perot bragged.
Oops. A simplistic plan like that was catnip for journalists, and NBC's Meet the Press host Tim Russert dismembered him on national TV. Did Perot understand, for example, that getting $100 billion out of Social Security meant taking away benefits not just from billionaires, but from 10 million elderly people, including some making as little as $15,000 a year? "Now this is an interesting game we're playing here today," the clearly wounded Perot said bitterly after a few more questions in that vein. "It would have been nice if you'd told me you wanted to talk about this, and I'd have had all my facts with me. But you didn't, right?"
Perot slunk back to Texas, where to his credit, he hired former Jimmy Carter budget official John White to help educate him and pull together a real deficit-reduction plan. The result was an extraordinary proposal to cut $744 billion over five years by doing things such as slashing defense spending, scaling back federal retirement COLAs, raising taxes on Social Security recipients, hiking Medicare premiums, and so on. Serious deficit reduction, dangerous politics. He admitted it would be tough, but so what? "If you can't stand a little pain and you can't stand a trip across the desert with limited water, we're never going to straighten this country out," he said on NBC's Today show that June. "So if you want Lawrence Welk music, I'm not your man."
Nearly two decades later, you just can't put it any better than that. Someone should send President Obama's deficit commission a pillow with Perot's words embroidered on it. Because he was -- obviously -- right about never being able to straighten the country out without pain. And the notion that it's political suicide to propose such a thing? Perot actually led the polls for a while before he convinced many voters he was too loopy to be president by dropping out of the race in July and then dropping back in again in October. By most accounts, though, he still won the first presidential debate, and in November he got almost 19 percent of the vote -- the best third party showing since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. Lawrence Welk music, indeed. Happy birthday, Ross.
George Hager is a member of the USA Today editorial board.
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