Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Council Counsel

I live in a single story house, but a portion of my basement is finished; I use this basement room as my library. This keeps the upstairs uncluttered, but (lazy as this sounds) the stairs mean that books tend to pile up on my coffee tables, because it is easy to say, “I’ll put these back downstairs later.” “Later” does eventually come, though, as it did last night when I carried a dozen books to the basement to file away on shelves. I also keep some memorabilia down there, such as the six yearbooks (grades 7-12) from my prep school years. After putting the books away, I happened to pick up the 8th grade yearbook and flick through it, looking at half-remembered faces and scrawled signatures. One student (I’m no longer sure who) in lieu of a signature had written inside the front cover, “Vote Right Vote Knight.”

I do remember what this meant. John Knight, a junior, had run for President of the Student Council for the following year. I (and apparently the comment-scribbler as well) had supported him. He lost. My preferred candidate the previous year had lost, too, which accustomed me early to voting for losing candidates. Student Council elections in those days were raucous affairs held in the old gym (nowadays the school’s theater). There was much shouting, cheering, booing, speechifying, balled-up-paper tossing, and (eventually) voting. The whole exercise meant nothing, since the Student Council had no authority whatsoever. Arguably, authority didn’t even lie with the school administration but with the Board of Trustees, the owners of the school, whom we never met – Henry Luce (Time/Life) was the only one we knew by name. There is a worldview (especially common, curiously, among elements of both the radical Left and radical Right) to the effect that this is a pretty fair microcosm of democratic politics generally.

Whatever degree of truth there may be to that view, there is a widespread sense in the US that something is fundamentally amiss with our democracy. Even though we hear much about the “polarization” of the electorate, and even though election season never really ends on these shores, the most significant polarization is between voters and non-voters. For all the politicians’ bombast and all of the efforts to “turn out the base,” the US ranks 120 in voter turnout among the 169 countries for which numbers are available. That’s right in between the Dominican Republic and Benin.

I don’t think the reason is apathy. I think it is closer to despair – a conviction that all of the nasty things Republicans and Democrats in Congress say about each other are true, and that neither party deserves a vote. The opinion is nothing new either. Perhaps this sounds familiar: “Our president blames Congress, Congress blames the president, the Democrats and Republicans blame each other. Nobody steps up to the plate and accepts responsibility for anything.” That was Ross Perot in 1992.

Perot, running on the Reform Party, came closer to winning the Presidency than any third party candidate other than Teddy Roosevelt. His campaign team included Hamilton Jordon, Jimmy Carter’s former chief of staff, and Ed Rollins, Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager. At the beginning of July 1992, Perot was, in fact, leading in the Presidential race with a 39.5% plurality in the polls despite a message that was anything but politic by conventional standards. He wanted substantial increases in taxes, including on gasoline, plus major cuts in defense and entitlements, including social security, which, he said, were on an unsustainable course. The message of fiscal responsibility struck a chord with the public. Then, suddenly, he withdrew from the race. (The reasons make a strange story of their own, but they are not to the point.) His supporters felt undercut and abandoned. Then he changed his mind again and re-entered the race, but it was too late. Though Perot generally is thought to have won the first presidential debate, he had lost all momentum. On election day Clinton won with 44%, followed by Bush with 36%, and then Perot with 15%. On his second attempt in 1996, Perot's share of the vote dropped to 8%.

I didn’t vote for Ross Perot in 1992. (Even more quixotically, I voted for a fourth party candidate.) However, I thought about it, if only in order to help break the two-party duopoly. 1992 might well have been the last realistic chance for that.

What does Ross himself have to say about the matter? (Yes, he is 82 and still with us.) He said to USA Today about a third party candidacy in the current environment, “It's almost impossible to do it. It would be a very healthy thing if you could get it done and make it happen, but it's very difficult to do, and very few people would want to try…They know they're going to be butchered from day one for what they've done, and much of the media will participate actively in that.”

Of course, if the conspiracy theorists are right after all and there really is a Board of Trustees, its members simply would smile regardless.

From 1996


  1. Ah good old Ross. I remember this being a big debate at the old video store. My manager was really excited about Perot and was behind him 100%. Then he picked Admiral Stockdale as a running mate. That poor man made such a bad impression during his debate (or an interview, I can't remember which) that my manager started to have her doubts about Perot.

    I thought the guy was fun to watch, had some great points, but was a bit concerned about how he would handle foreign affairs. I was a year shy of being able to vote, but was still following the whole thing. That and SNL had some funny Perot based humor.

    But yeah, sad to say a third party would be almost impossible these days.

    1. Admiral Stockdale was a navy flyer with 26 decorations including the Medal of Honor and four Silver Stars, but he was anything but a politician. He learned that he would be in the Vice Presidential debate a week before it happened, so he had minimal preparation and had a problem with his hearing aid (from all that time around jet engines) to boot. He ended up looking dazed and confused, and he was skewered in a Saturday Night Live parody. In politics, as in upscale restaurants, the presentation matters more than the nutritional content, and he thereafter was stuck with the image of an ineffective bumbler.

      I also had a number of issues with Ross in foreign affairs (and some domestic ones), but, given what mainstream officeholders did once in office, perhaps his policies would have been no worse.

      Financing is the big stumbling block. Who besides the main parties can raise $100 000 000 for an election? Efforts at public financing so far have led to no improvements since the two parties always make sure that they themselves are the prime beneficiaries. Basically, an effective third party candidate would have to be willing to spend $100 000 000 of his or her own money, which rather limits the number of possibilities.