The Great Scare of 1996


If Ross Perot runs for president as an independent in 1996, he’ll lose, splitting the vote as he did in 1992. The Democrats know it, the Republicans know it, and, according to his associates, Perot knows it. But there is another option for the Texan: to run for president as a Republican. He’s got the money, and with United We Stand America chapters in all fifty states, he’s got the grassroots organization that can prove crucial in state primaries.

The Democrats don’t like this scenario because, with a Republican base, Perot would be a much stronger candidate. The idea makes Republicans squirm because it would shake up the party’s power structure, and derail individual Republicans’ plans to run. At least the Democrats can wait. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” says one Clinton adviser. The Republicans have to think fast–and they can’t decide whether to love or hate Ross Perot.

In the first months of the Clinton administration, GOP strategists felt Perot was their ally, especially when he attacked the Clinton budget. Some Republicans–Minority Whip Newt Gingrich included–actually joined United We Stand. “The congressman supports anyone who’s actively trying to oppose the welfare state and the tax increases,” explains Tony Blankley, Gingrich’s press secretary. Paul Begala, a Clinton consultant, puts it another way: “That giant sucking sound Perot talks about is the sound of every Republican in Washington kissing his ass.”

Democratic sources say that the Republican National Committee has been buying lists of people who signed petitions to get Ross Perot on the 1992 ballot and sending them direct mail, but Anne Gavin, press secretary at the RNC, denies it. She admits, however, that “we send state party leaders talking points on a fairly frequent basis on, say, the Clinton health-care plan, and encourage them to share that information with Perot leaders in their state.” The bottom line, Gavin insists, is that “we’re less concerned about Ross Perot than we are about the 19 million people who voted for him, and we think those people agree with us, because they voted for Reagan and Bush.”

But some Perot positions have not been in keeping with Republican wisdom, especially his opposition to NAFTA. He was “just appealing to peoples’ anxieties about their jobs,” says Massachusetts Governor William Weld. “Peel the leaves off that artichoke, and there’s no artichoke heart.”

Overall, Republicans pay lip service to the idea of Perot running as a Republican. (“The more the merrier,” says Bill Weld.) But recently some high-profile Republicans have lashed out at Perot. Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson sneered that “the sucking noise…is from some extraterrestrial vehicle pulling his brains from his body.” Other recent critics include William Bennett, Jack Kemp, and Phil Gramm, all of whom have something in common. Like Ross Perot, they each want to be president.