Long before Al Gore challenged Ross Perot to debate the wisdom of NAFTA, the folks in the White House were working to keep Perot off balance. So last September 2, the day Perot was to appear on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show,” a White House adviser got on the horn to L.A. After chatting with a “Tonight Show” writer, he faxed some questions to Leno–queries about Perot’s hostility to NAFTA, and about Save Your Job, Save Our Country: Why NAFTA Must Be Stopped–Now!, which Perot cowrote with Washington trade analyst Pat Choate.
Jay Leno is no Sam Donaldson, and his questions were puffballs–with one exception. So, how exactly did you write this book? Leno asked Perot. Did you take turns writing chapters?
Perot fobbed it off, said something about the book being a collaboration. But the implication of ghostwriting put a nick in Perot’s armor. The administration staffer had done his job.
Most Americans found out about the administration’s effort to discredit Ross Perot when the usually mild- mannered Al Gore dismembered Perot in their debate on “Larry King Live.” In ninety minutes, Gore slammed Perot as greedy and corrupt, an isolationist, and a fearmonger. The attacks, and the vehemence with which Gore launched them, surprised many. They shouldn’t have. Gore’s barbs were the logical outcome of anti-Perot tactics the White House had been quietly developing for months.
Perot had bitten off 19 million presidential votes in 1992, and since the election, had shown no signs of getting back to business. To institutionalize his politics of insurgency, he started chapters of his “educational” group, United We Stand America, Inc., in every state. The group hasn’t been shy about its intentions. “We plan to be major players in the 1994 elections,” said Sharon Holman, Perot’s spokesperson.
From the budget to Bosnia to NAFTA, Perot himself was a relentless and highly visible gadfly, constantly on television or speechifying or staging massive rallies. It looked as though he couldn’t wait to run for president in 1996, as he tried to roadblock some of Bill Clinton’s most important initiatives–especially NAFTA. More than any other individual, it was Perot who made the NAFTA vote a down-to-the-wire affair.
But in the months before the NAFTA debate, the president’s men–particularly advisers George Stephanopoulos and David Gergen, tactician Rahm Emmanuel, pollster Stan Greenberg, and consultant Paul Begala–had cooked up a strategy to undercut the Texan’s popularity. They determined to destroy Perot’s credibility while wooing his voters.
Administration options. White House personnel initially varied in their opinions of Ross Perot. “Some groups in the White House think that Perot should be dealt with gingerly, as a true patriot, and others think you should be more hard-hitting,” said an administration source in August. During last summer’s floods, for example, presidential advisers seriously discussed the idea of enlisting Perot to help with flood relief, but eventually rejected it.
The president himself was said to harbor an intense dislike of Perot, although in public he tried to ignore him. Chief of Staff Thomas “Mack” McLarty and counselor David Gergen apparently argued that Perot could be drawn into a civil relationship with the White House–sort of a nonresident constructive critic. Other staffers, like Stephanopoulos and Emmanuel, doubted the feasibility of ever working with Perot, while freelancer Paul Begala held the billionaire in contempt. “It just burns me up every time I hear him tell another lie about Bill Clinton,” Begala said.
Clinton and his advisers did agree on one point: the political rewards of prying Perot’s voters away from him. The short-term goal, said one White House source, was “to lower [Perot’s] significance as a political figure.” The long-term stakes were higher.
“Our challenge is to build a new presidential majority that can dominate the national scene for the next generation,” argued Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank closely tied to the administration. “The opportunity is there, but we have to win over this independent block.”
Thanks to pollster Stan Greenberg, the administration was confident that it knew how to do that. Last spring the Progressive Policy Institute and its partner organization, the Democratic Leadership Council, asked Greenberg to discover who had voted for Perot. After polling 1,200 Perot supporters and conducting six focus groups, Greenberg mapped the psyche of the typical Ross Perot booster.
Who voted for Perot . . . Most Perot voters, Greenberg found, were nomad Republicans with secular, libertarian tendencies on social issues. Many were pro-choice. What united them under the Perot banner was their exasperation with congressional gridlock. “Their greatest fear was not that Bill Clinton would do the wrong things,” said Will Marshall, “but that he would be prevented from doing anything.”
That’s why these voters were attracted to Perot. Greenberg found that their priorities were “breaking gridlock, movement on the economy, and changing the way government does things.” But he also found that these voters weren’t wedded to the Texan: “doubts about Perot are very close to the surface . . . and center on the very attributes that make him attractive”–inexperience, the lack of a partisan base, and an independence of spirit that could “produce gridlock . . . and undependable leadership.”
“The premise,” explained Paul Begala, “was that this is not a cult of personality.” Hence the Clintonites didn’t think they needed Perot’s endorsement or alliance to win his supporters. “If you voted for Ross Perot,” Begala said, “chances are you did it because you thought the barn needed cleaning out. Are any of those valid concerns addressed by sucking up to a bigmouthed billionaire from Dallas?”
. . . and how to win their support. Greenberg’s survey provided the basis for the White House’s strategy: First, break gridlock. Second, reinforce and supplement existing doubts about Perot’s character. “Ross Perot is the outgrowth of people’s frustrations,” said one White House aide. “We got elected on the same frustration. So the strategy with Ross Perot was, do your agenda.”
Reform-oriented issues such as health care, reinventing government, campaign finance, and deficit cutting have been particularly appealing to Perot supporters. Next up will be crime legislation and welfare reform. They’re not only issues that Clinton cares about, they also cut into Perot’s base.
The legislative strategy sounded easier than it really was. First, Clinton had to cope with a powerful chunk of his party–what Will Marshall called “the congressional wing”–that didn’t want him to act like a “new” Democrat on issues like welfare reform and NAFTA. Second, simply proposing legislation or passing watered-down bills didn’t impress Perot voters. Al Gore’s reinventing government plan, for example, delivered the administration a short-term political boost, but in the months following its introduction, little came of it. That apparent lack of follow-through may have actually increased popular alienation.
But the administration wasn’t just trusting that its legislative wisdom would drift across the land to be inhaled by giddy Perot boosters. The House and Senate Democratic campaign committees briefed party staffers on Greenberg’s report so that they, too, could court the Perot bloc. And Democratic National Committee Chairman David Wilhelm and Field Director Tony Rodham (brother of Hillary) met with former members of United We Stand America, hoping to draw them into Democratic politics.
“Smacking” Perot. Much as it would have liked to, the administration couldn’t entirely avoid direct confrontations with Perot. The plan was to challenge him directly only as a last resort. Another ground rule was never to engage the president in a one-on-one debate with Perot. “Sometimes you have to smack Perot, but never through the president,” said one Clintonite. The theory was that presidential responses to Perot would only give the Texan unnecessary stature and credibility.
Who responded to Ross Perot? The answer, it seemed, was everyone but Clinton. Before Gore dueled Perot on national TV, administration officials like trade representative Mickey Kantor, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, and NAFTA czar Bill Daley publicly slammed the billionaire Texan. Paul Begala dogged him relentlessly. After Perot appeared on the “Today” show, for example, Begala was the next guest, pronouncing, “When Ross Perot goes to a wedding he wants to be the bride; when he goes to a funeral, he wants to be the corpse.”
This chorus of criticism deftly exploited one of Perot’s weaknesses–his refusal to delegate authority. While Perot tried singlehandedly to fend off the attacks of the Lilliputians, Clinton stood, statesmanlike, above the fray. The attacks caught Perot up in a cycle of name-calling and response, and while he was distracted, Clinton wooed his voters. It was a double whammy.
When Clinton officials criticized Ross Perot, their words were calculated to reinforce the incipient doubts about the Texan ferreted out by Stan Greenberg. Administration mouthpieces called Perot, at one time or another, “demagogic,” “xenophobic,” and “nativist.” The terms hinted at instability and authoritarianism, qualities Perot’s supporters were already fretting about.
The charge most often made by the president’s proxies, however, was that Perot had become “just another politician.” It was an inspired accusation. (After all, how could Perot stay relevant and not speak out?) The Clintonites painted Ross Perot, the self-styled archenemy of gridlock, as the defender of the status quo. As one official pointed out, “He’s hurt himself politically by not finding a way to support the administration. He has only one gear–criticism–and at some point that loses its touch.”
Dirty tricks? Strong language was not the only weapon wielded against Perot. On occasion the White House resorted to campaign-style tactics like trying to sabotage Perot’s “Tonight Show” appearance. Pat Choate claims the administration sent people to UWS rallies to “take notes” and “heckle” Perot. He also accuses the administration of manipulating the press: “Journalists are getting anti-Perot stuff in the mail,” he says. “Most of it has no return address.” (Several reporters who cover Perot say they have no knowledge of this, and the White House denies both charges.)
None of these activities would constitute particularly dirty politics. But Choate tells one story that is more extreme. Last April 22, Perot appeared before the Senate Banking Committee to testify on NAFTA. The White House didn’t like him testifying, and it liked even less the idea of C-Span televising his appearance. So, Choate claims, a White House aide called Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who called Brian Lamb, the chairman of C-Span. Some sort of deal was struck, and Perot’s testimony never graced the airwaves.
A true story? It’s virtually impossible to prove, and the accused parties vehemently deny it. (In fact, a C-Span official claims that it has been Perot who has exerted pressure on the network in an effort to get airtime.) If Choate’s accusation is false, which it seems to be, it becomes in a way more interesting. The Perot side’s faith in a shadowy rumor suggests that the White House was getting under Perot’s skin. The administration hadn’t forgotten Perot’s campaign laments that Republicans tried to disrupt his daughter’s wedding and that a guard dog chased assassins from his Dallas compound. What better than if Perot’s camp started making new charges that sounded equally paranoid?
Trade barriers. There was one great danger in the White House strategy: they would underestimate Perot’s economic populism. It almost happened in the battle over NAFTA. The administration didn’t push the treaty until after Labor Day, and by then two things had happened to convince congresspeople to vote no on NAFTA. First, they were bludgeoned by the strong arm of organized labor. Second, they ran headfirst into Ross Perot and United We Stand.
“During the [congressional] recess, United We Stand members met with their representatives about NAFTA,” said Sharon Holman, Perot’s spokesperson. They were influential: in Massachusetts, for example, the group helped convince five congresspeople to vote against NAFTA.
Perot sent copies of his book to every member of Congress, and organized postcard campaigns on the theme, “Say No to NAFTA.” By the time of the vote, he had given anti-NAFTA speeches in close to one hundred cities and nearly every state.
“I was a skeptic about Perot’s influence when he first began to talk about NAFTA,” said Congressman Robert Matsui, D-California, the House leader on the pro-NAFTA side. “[But] most of the members that flipped on NAFTA said, ‘I just can’t vote for it, because Perot won x percent of the vote in my district.’ ”
Perot’s efforts finally goaded the administration into tardy but decisive action. In September, former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca was brought on board to film pro-NAFTA ads. The administration enlisted lobbyists known for their clout with specific congresspeople. And Clinton bought as many votes as he could, cutting deals with members in exchange for ayes.
That was level one–pushing the agenda. Level two meant knocking Perot. In late August, the office of the United States trade representative got its hands on prepublication xerox copies of Perot’s book, and within days a seventy-four-page rebuttal was messengered around Washington. On September 14, the White House brought former presidents Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and George Bush to Washington to trumpet their support for NAFTA. Carter floored the media by calling Perot “a demagogue . . . who is preying on the fears and uncertainties of the American public.” But he didn’t stun the White House, which had negotiated the statement with him beforehand.
A recurring theme was the casting of Perot as part of an anti-NAFTA lunatic fringe. Again and again the White House lumped Perot in with other opponents of the treaty: Ralph Nader, Jerry Brown, Pat Buchanan, Jesse Jackson. All but Perot are best known for past achievements, and all had run failed presidential campaigns. Linking Perot to them was the White House’s attempt to define him as marginal.
Finally, there was the Gore debate, a desperate attempt to corral enough last-minute votes to pass NAFTA. Clinton couldn’t debate Perot himself without raising the Texan to the level of presidential contender, but White House advisers were convinced that NAFTA would crash and burn if drastic measures weren’t taken. So Gore proposed that he debate Perot, and Clinton quickly warmed to the idea. The White House felt that even if the debate were a draw, the media (and the Washington pundits in particular) were so fed up with Perot that they would slam him.
Al Gore had several predebate planning sessions with White House advisers, and his attacks on Perot flowed from their long-term strategy. Gore’s language played to the doubts of Perot voters uncovered by Stan Greenberg. Perot, Gore charged, practiced the “politics of fear.” The public could stick with the administration and move forward, or support Perot and the status quo. The day after the debate, administration spinners such as Paul Begala continued to push the strategy, saying that “Perot voters” should now be called “independent voters.”
The gamble worked–Perot’s authority and influence were seriously diminished–and with NAFTA, Clinton won the biggest victory of his first year in office.
The administration would very much like to believe that NAFTA’s passage marked the beginning of Perot’s end. Certainly it inflicted grave political damage upon the Texan, sapping his credibility as he gears up for the health-care fight. But millions of Americans still have faith in Perot, and frustrated about NAFTA, they may believe, more than ever, that he is the only politician who fights for them and their jobs. In the end, Clinton won’t silence Perot until he convinces those Americans that they’re wrong.
Richard Blow is a frequent contributor to Mother Jones.