Ross Perot defined a path for Donald Trump

Texas billionaire and two-time presidential candidate Ross Perot talk to members of the media before accepting the Command and General Staff College Foundation's 2010 Distinguished Leadership Award Tuesday, April 20, 2010. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)
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Brian Howey

INDIANAPOLIS (Howey Politics) — Ross Perot famously said, “Eagles don’t flock. You have to find them one at a time.”

It was a prescient comment from the first billionaire to run for president, coming a few years before Steve Forbes and some 34 years before Donald J. Trump. In late spring 1992, Perot actually led President George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton in the polls, giving us a glimpse of a populist movement with widespread traction.

Writing then for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, I got a ground floor view of this movement which for several weeks prompted many of us to think he could actually win. The Perotistas had set up an office in a Fort Wayne strip mall. It was an utter beehive, with volunteers buzzing about, breaking Allen County into "zippies" (i.e., zip-codes) to organize a political movement.

Aided by the fledgling radio talk star Rush Limbaugh, the Perotistas were ticked off about what they perceived to be bad trade deals like NAFTA, with Perot saying in his Texas nasal twang that the "giant sucking sound" we’d be hearing were jobs headed to Mexico. Perot favored term limits for Congress. He loathed the special interest money that Donald Trump would later define as "the swamp." He once said, "The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, the public debt should be reduced and the arrogance of public officials should be controlled."

Perot took on both the Clintons and Bushes three decades before Trump. This came in an era prior to the World Wide Web, but Perot communicated with his peeps in his own way. He appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live," vowing to run for president if the people would qualify him for the ballot in all 50 states. Working class folks from Fort Wayne to the coasts rose to the challenge, achieving his goal in the ultimate political draft movement.

And three decades before Trump declared health reform and trade wars would be "simple" to win, Perot had his own boasts: “I can solve the problem of the national debt without working up a sweat. It’s just that simple.”

If there was an enemy at hand, Perot's approach was curt and concise: “If you see a snake, just kill it. Don’t appoint a committee on snakes.”

There are many comparisons between Perot and Trump, but the former provided a crucial lesson to the latter. Perot tried to win the presidency as a populist independent. But as the rockers say, "paranoia will destroy ya" and the media got inside Perot's head. He declared midsummer that the news media was conspiring to ruin his daughter's wedding, and the whole thing began to unravel. He exited the race, then stormed back. But the window to victory had closed.

When the votes were counted, Perot carried 18.9% of the vote nationally, including 19.77% in Vice President Dan Quayle's Indiana. He paved the way for Clinton to defeat Bush. From this showing, Perot created the Reform Party, used it to run again in 1996, and the party was a presidential campaign platform that Trump briefly dallied with in 2000.

But as singer Steve Earle's folk hero John Lee Pettimore down yonder on Copperhead Road might put it, Donald J. Trump came up "with a brand new plan." Trump would speak the populist code to the regular folks and take over an entire party, the Grand Old Party.

While the Hoosier Republican establishment stuck with John Kasich and Ted Cruz in the 2016 primary, Trump invoked the coaching trinity (Bobby Knight, Gene Keady and Lou Holtz), deemed the state "Importantville" and like another populist (socialist Bernie Sanders) won the Hoosier primary with 53% of the vote.

Gov. Mike Pence would see the light and a golden opportunity, and today Hoosier Republicans have enjoined the Trumpian cult of personality. They now eschew balanced budgets, don’t mind trillion dollar deficits, no longer advocate free trade, embrace tariffs and farm bailouts, don't mind sexual harassment allegations (unless you're Attorney General Curtis Hill) and don't sweat a bead if Harley-Davidson is demonized.

“Ross Perot was certainly the most influential political force in the late 20th century from outside the regular party system,” Allan Lichtman, a distinguished professor of history at American University, told CNBC. “I think what explains it is people’s dissatisfaction — this is absolutely relevant to the appeal of Donald Trump — people’s dissatisfaction with business as usual in Washington.”

Perot once said, “Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success. They quit on the one-yard line. They give up at the last minute of the game one foot from a winning touchdown.”

Donald J. Trump took that ball and rammed it up the gut, then spiked the ball into the punch bowl and mooned the cheerleaders. He took over a party, beat the Bushes and Clintons, and as Frank Sinatra might put it, he's doing it "my way."

I couldn't find any Ross Perot quotes explicitly about Donald Trump, but he did say, "War has rules, mud wrestling has rules, politics has no rules."

Perot also said, "In this country, if you're eccentric and a billionaire you either kill a wrestler or run for president."

The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.

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