Would We Have Been Better Off With Perot?

An alternative history of America after 1992


There's a persistent American fantasy of a CEO president: a corporate Cincinnatus uncorrupted by elected experience who steps in to right the ship of state through sheer executive will. In the 1980s, the chatter centered around Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca, who polled well but refused to run. In the '90s, it was Electronic Data Systems founder Ross Perot, who actually entered the ring. Our current president is also a businessman, and a lot of his fans seem to imagine him as the hyper-competent executive he played on The Apprentice rather than the bankruptcy-court regular he was in real life.

You might expect Donald Trump's performance in office to have taken the luster off the CEO-savior fantasy, if not universally then at least among Trump's critics. But at least one guy thinks we merely picked the wrong boss. Howard Schultz, having run Starbucks and the Seattle SuperSonics, is now flirting with the idea of adding America to his portfolio.

The most interesting member of that plutocratic quartet is surely Perot. That's partly because he picked the most interesting time to run. His initial campaign came in 1992, the first post-Cold War election. In that politically scrambled setting, the Texas independent quickly rose in the polls. By June he was firmly in the lead: According to Gallup, 39 percent of registered voters supported him, with 31 percent favoring Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush and just 25 percent backing Democratic nominee Bill Clinton.

Perot blew his chances when he petulantly pulled out of the race in July and then re-entered it in October, blaming his withdrawal on a hazily sketched GOP plot against him. After that, he seemed less like a competent manager ready to stabilize the nation and more like an erratic uncle with a collection of grievances. But he still got a respectable 19 percent of the popular vote, outperforming Clinton in Utah and Bush in Maine. When he ran again four years later, he got a bit more than 8 percent—substantially lower than his previous total, but still better than any other independent or third-party presidential candidate of the last half-century.

Folk memory vaguely recalls Perot's platforms and persona as "conservative," but in fact they were more of a mix. He was a protectionist, a deficit hawk, a foreign-policy dove (or at least more dovish than the two guys who beat him), and socially tolerant in a mind-your-own-business way. He had a strong technocratic streak too, which he would put on display when asked about issues where he didn't have a fully formed position: Striking a post-ideological pose, he'd promise to get "the best experts" in a room and let them hash out an answer. In his more small-d democratic moments, he would expand the number of advisers: He speculated about holding national referendums and participatory "electronic town halls."

I didn't vote for him. I have no love for either protectionism or technocracy, and I've never bought into the idea that the skills of a successful businessman would work miracles in the rather different institutional context of the federal government. Still, I've often wondered if we'd be better off if Perot had won in '92.

The case for being glad he lost largely comes down to Perot's views on trade. There are plenty of places where I disagreed with the guy, from taxes to the drug war, but most of those involved issues where the other candidates were hardly better. Trade is another matter.

Clinton's policies in this area weren't spectacular. The man who did win in 1992 gave us managed-trade agreements weighed down with unnecessary rules, including some measures (particularly the ones involving intellectual property) that made trade less rather than more free. But that's not why Perot criticized the North American Free Trade Agreement or the World Trade Organization. He attacked them for the ways they did liberalize markets, and he wanted to move in the opposite direction. His trade policies would almost certainly have been far more restrictionist than what we got instead.

That isn't just a minor issue. The last quarter-century has seen a dramatic leap in much of the world's standard of living, and one reason for that is lower barriers to global exchange. There are other reasons too, of course, from the advent of new technologies to various countries' domestic reforms—forces that are entangled with global trade but also have other sources. Still, the most optimistic prospect for a Perot-style trade order is one where the Third World developed but not as quickly and not as well.

On the other hand, we would've been a lot better off with the nontrade portions of Perot's foreign policy. We might even have avoided the war on terror.

Unlike Bill Clinton, Perot opposed the first Gulf War—and he continued to criticize it after the U.S. won. He went on to oppose Clinton's interventions in Haiti and the Balkans. His deficit reduction plan included deep cuts in military spending, going $40 billion beyond the post–Cold War trims backed by Bush. Perot was especially aggravated by how much the U.S. spent defending Europe, declaring it "very important for us to let them assume more and more of the burden and for us to bring that money back here and rebuild our infrastructure." He wasn't wild about Washington's defense commitments in Asia either.

At the risk of getting too speculative, it's not hard to imagine him bringing home the U.S. troops that stayed in Saudi Arabia at the end of the first Iraq conflict. Put differently, it's not hard to imagine him pre-empting Osama bin Laden's chief grievance against the United States.

If that's taking the thought experiment too far, we can certainly say this much: The U.S. had an opportunity in the 1990s to roll back the empire it built during the Cold War. Bush and Clinton preferred to preserve it, and in the process they paved the way for the post-9/11 imperium. There's at least a fair chance that Perot would have gone in a different direction.

Until a couple of years ago, that was how things seemed to stand: President Perot would have been worse when it came to trading with other nations and better when it came to not bombing them. But lately there's been an additional factor to consider. It involves another CEO who got involved in politics, who even spent a little time in Perot's Reform Party, one whose views are similar to Perot's when it comes to trade but rather different when it comes to debt. After two years of Donald Trump in the White House, I can't help thinking: If we were going to get a nationalist business executive as president, Perot would've been a hell of a lot more benign.

The area where Trump has done the most to expand intrusive government was barely on Perot's radar screen: The Texas businessman wasn't particularly pro-immigration, but he wasn't especially opposed to it either. He certainly had no interest in the xenophobic fear-mongering that runs through Trump's rhetoric. (When Perot's critics searched for an excuse to call him a bigot, the best they could come up with was the fact that he had awkwardly used the phrase "you people" in a speech to the NAACP.) And while Trump and Perot may agree on some foreign policy questions—the cost of Europe's defense, for instance—President Perot seems less likely to have amped up the aerial bombardment of the Middle East, or to have put Elliott Abrams in charge of Venezuela policy, or to have ruminated about deliberately targeting terrorists' families.

Unlike Trump, Perot actually cared about cutting federal spending—including the modern GOP's great untouchable, the Pentagon budget. And unlike Trump, he clearly had a functioning head on his shoulders. Bad as Perot's trade policy might have been, it would not have had the random-synapses-firing quality of the Trump trade wars. At least Perot understood how tariffs work.

The business Cincinnatus is a daydream for people more smitten with corporate hierarchies than with the open markets that can lay such hierarchies to waste. President Perot wouldn't have saved the country, no more than President Trump did or President Schultz will. But he could have taken us down a different path in the 1990s, one with less trade-fueled wealth but also with fewer foreign wars. And he certainly would have been preferable to the much more flamboyant executive who entered the Oval Office in January 2017. The super-capable CEO president is a fantasy, but some fantasy CEOs are worse than others.