I’ll say right off the bat that these are my favorite general election debates. 1992 is special because it remains the only time a third party candidate ever participated along with the two main party nominees—after that year, the two parties came together to change the rules so it could never happen again. It’s also a great look at one of my favorite “what if” candidates of all time, and probably the best Independent candidate ever in the modern era—Ross Perot. Aside from being a great guy doing the Lord’s work in tearing down the status quo, Perot’s ideas were very good, and I believe were special in their ability to unite people on both sides of the aisle. His, and Larry Agran’s platforms from ’92 are what Clinton’s Third Way Centrism should have been. I suggest anyone like me who wants a change in government ought to research both men and their ideas. This candidacy was also notable for being the closest America has ever come to freeing herself from the neocon/neoliberal stranglehold we’ve been stuck under from 1980 until the present day. What makes it even more dramatic is Perot faces off against the two pillars of this period, what I’ve called the Dynastic Era or at other times The Second Gilded Age of American history, those being the Bushes and the Clintons.
What’s pretty telling right away is that the terms of the debate, according to the moderator, were agreed to “by the Bush and Clinton campaigns” with Perot presumably getting no say. Even in this one crucial year when an independent/3rd Party was allowed at the big boy’s table he still had to come on their terms. Perot is allowed to answer first at least, and when asked “what is the most important issue of this campaign?” he emphasizes his outsider status. Unlike the others, he was put on the ballot by a pure grassroots uprising—no PAC money, no party lobbying, just pure democracy as it should be.
Clinton gives what would become the usual song and dance of non-incumbent politicians over the next cycles, and even at this point was already a cliché. The whole “I represent real change!” mantra, which we should all know now is just not true. He specifically attacks trickle down economics which he would actually keep in place once in power. Normally, when there’s only 2 options and one is calling for change, all we can do is take them at their word (“well, he says he’ll be different. Why not give him a shot?”) However, when we have a THIRD option to compare to, one who can unequivocally point out that he’s not bought and paid for…Clinton’s repetition of the words “hope” and “change” (sound familiar?) rings extraordinarily hallow. If you took a shot for every “change” in just that opening statement, you’d already be buzzed by now. The point is these shallow overtures don’t work when the real deal is standing right next to you, and even the powers that be recognized this which is why they never allowed it to happen again.
Bush defends his record and throws the whole “we ended the Cold War” in our face. Clinton is allowed to give a rebuttal, and gives his own experience and record as Governor of Arkansas. He accuses Bush of having “the wrong kind of experience” which ironically would be used by Trump as a rebuttal against Hillary’s claims as “the most experienced candidate ever!!!” in 2016. Bush is allowed to respond, and instead of a sound counterattack, he merely feigns outrage at Clinton’s “America is coming apart at the seams” talking point. When Perot is allowed to weigh in, he says “Well, I don’t have experience running up a 4 trillion dollar debt!” to a bout of laughter. He goes on to attack gridlock in government and emphasizes his experience “getting things done.” This also sounds a lot like the most effective pieces of rhetoric Trump had to offer.
Bush insanely, indefensibly, compares himself to Joe McCarthy (!!!!) in the next answer as a way of insulting Clinton’s past. He insists that you can’t be commander in chief if you’ve spoken out against America in the past. This is inane and dangerous virtue signalling in my opinion–being able to speak out against government is a fundamental part of what makes democracy work, and to force loyalty tests to run for president is how you get a one party dictatorship. Perot says that mistakes or decisions made as a young man should not be a deal breaker in running for President, and it’s up to the American people to determine morality. Clinton directly attacks Bush for questioning his (Clinton’s) patriotism, and rightly harps on the ridiculousness of wanting to be seen as another McCarthy. He even brings up how Prescott Bush himself stood up to Joe McCarthy back in the day, to a round of well deserved applause from the audience (seriously, what was Bush thinking with that comparison?)
The subject comes to taxes. Clinton would raise them on people making 200k and up. Bush accuses Clinton of underestimating what his proposals will cost and accuses him of secretly wanting to raise taxes on the middle class. Bizarrely, this unproven accusation gets a round of applause. Perot talks about rebuilding our jobs base since all jobs being created are minimum wage. This particular talking point of Perot’s is something I’d love to see more people in power point out these days; we always hear “the stock market is up” or “unemployment is down” but how many of those jobs come with decent pay, a future and benefits?
The next subject is on whether we need to have so many troops deployed in Eastern Europe with the end of the Cold War. Bush, predictably, says it’s necessary to keep the peace. Perot, again channeling the actual good pieces of Trump’s rhetoric, says that we ought not be wasting our money defending foreign countries who aren’t paying their share when we ourselves are in so much debt. He points out that now that Japan and Europe can pay for their own defense, they should. Clinton says he agrees with Bush’s statement but disagrees with the amount of troops needed. Again, the difference between the two neocon dynastic parties and the outsider is staggering.
Perot is challenged on his gas tax (10 cents a year cumulative and 50 cents on the 5th year.) He says he understands this idea is not popular, but it’s necessary to fix the problems the two parties created. With that money, he states, we could pay off the debt and rebuild infrastructure. Bush predictably feigns outrage that the American people would be taxed more, even just 10 cents a gallon. Clinton’s response sounds a lot like mouthwash to me.
Perot’s Highs and Lows
One thing I really like in the next round is when Perot accuses the Reagan/Bush administrations of ceding entire industries to other countries, and of practicing 19th century economics while the rest of the world is practicing 21st century economics. His definition of 21st century economics seems to be more cooperation and long term strategizing between government and business. I would agree that this is what America needs. We could have staved off global warming, really strengthened our hold on emerging industries like computer manufacturing and software development, and allowed for maximum utilization of our potential workforce if we allowed greater cooperation between government, business and labor. Instead, we allow the businesses to dominate the government, run rampant over the needs of labor, artificially prop up dying industries like coal, and focus purely on short term quarterly profits rather than long term benefit to society. I believe this mismanagement stems from our paranoid, delusional fear of “socialism” and the way the right-wing destroyed labor unions in the ’80s. With these developments, any regulation of government in economics is seen as blasphemy unless it’s bailing them out or overthrowing foreign countries for their benefit. It’s very much an Imperialist/Mercantile economy rather than the modern Democratic Socialism of Western Europe and elsewhere.
At this point, it’s obvious too how hampered Perot is by the format of the debate. Multiple times now he has been forced to say some variant of “I want to say more, but that’s all I can fit into one minute.” It’s clear he’s very knowledgeable about economics and such, but nobody could ever impart the depth of their positions in the ridiculously short amount of time given in these debates. It just can’t be done, and I’ve said as much multiple times before while watching them. The other two do not have this problem because they’re polished, manufactured political puppets and they spent their whole adult lives learning how to cram in the right vacuous buzzwords (Clinton’s repetition of “change” for instance) into a useless 1 minute soundbite. Unfortunately, to the uninformed, ignorant masses, I could see how this might make Perot appear unprofessional or unprepared. As if he’s making excuses or doesn’t know what to say. And really, that’s the plan. That’s why the debates are NOT organized like Lincoln/Douglas anymore. Because the two main parties call the shots and they don’t want a substantial analysis of policy. They want to trade buzzwords every 4 years depending on which party is the incumbent “experience! Proven record!” and which is the challenger “hope! Change!”
When he’s specifically asked about his ideas for job creation, Perot calls for task forces set up for small businesses, large businesses, plans for the future, and undoing the adversarial relationship between government and business. He wants to do all this the day after the election, present it by Christmas, and challenge Congress to enact them. I admit I’m a little bit disappointed by this answer, since his response to “what is your plan” essentially boils down to “I’ll draw up a plan later.” I know he can’t have one right then and there without all the insider facts the President is privy to, much less say it in one minute. But still. That said, Clinton’s is even worse and more vague. And Bush is worse still “we’ve already done it!”
Post-Cold War Foreign Policy
Perot is asked what America’s chief interest should be in this post-Cold War Era. Perot’s answer is to produce in America again, decommission tactical ICBMs and support Russia and the former Soviet Republics in transitioning to capitalism. His warning about former KGB operatives taking over in Russia turned out to be spot on with the rise of Putin.
Clinton wants a smaller, more mobile military and less nukes. Bush is saying everything is on track already. He intentionally misrepresents Clinton’s talking point about a new military.
When the conversation turns to China in particular, Perot correctly predicts that they will be our biggest trading partner in the near future.
Aftermath of the Southern Strategy & Moral Majority
One of the weirdest questions is when Clinton is asked how he would define a family. It’s bizarre and almost funny watching him struggle to come up with one that won’t offend anybody from gays, to extended families who live together, to traditional ‘Murican nuclear families in the South. That said, he doesn’t do too bad of a job at it. If I were asked, I’d say “people who love each other—usually related by blood, but not always, who live together or otherwise provide for their own common betterment.” But knowing how testy people are, I’m sure someone somewhere would take offense to that, sadly. Also, apparently it’s Clinton’s wedding anniversary, so there’s a little trivia for ya.
Bush’s talk about the decline of urban families is directly attributable to his party’s war on drugs, and his anecdote about an AIDS baby rings hallow considering how his predecessor laughed about the same problem.
Perot pivots back to jobs but then comes back to how success starts in the home. This whole thing was a waste of a question, if you ask me. I’m not sure why it was asked, or who it what voter demographic it was directed to. Im guessing the LGBT community, but considering how in the 90s we were still persona non grata to much of the establishment, that seems very strange to me.
Next question is about legalizing drugs. Bush gives a flat “nope” to that idea. Big surprise, considering he was the most fanatically, ridiculously anti-drug president we ever had. Tragically, he gets a round of applause. Unfortunately, Perot also comes out against narcotics legalization. Again, he’s hardly the perfect candidate, but you take what you can get—he was far better than these other two jokers. Clinton also comes out against legalization, and uses his brother’s addiction as a political prop. That said, unlike the other two, Clinton actually offers some good ideas to help addicts rather than just say “nope” and move on.
When the topic of racial division comes up, Perot accuses the other parties of dividing people into voting blocks during election time to appeal to them with wedge issues rather than appeal to the nation as a whole. I absolutely, 100% agree, and he gets a well earned round of applause for this. It happens all the time, the GOP either rolling out anti-gay initiatives on the ballots, or making up the transgender bathroom scare, to fracture us and use fear or anger to get people to the polls. Clinton gives some mouthwash without any real answer. And Bush just straight up talks out of his ass, considering his party openly embraced racism via the Southern Strategy to sweep into power. What’s hilarious is he even uses half his time here to go back to talking about the DEA, attacking Perot for daring to criticize them (which he didn’t even do.) Talk about irony, and tone deafness.
The subject turns to AIDS and Bush claims his administration has done a lot for victims. Again, after his and Reagan’s administrations did jack about it for years, laughed about it on tape, and Bush himself called having a gay kid “a humiliation” at one of the ’88 primary debates. This man is just too much. This is like 3 answers in a row where he gaslighted the audience. Perot says he’d let AIDS victims try out experimental drugs if they’re willing to take that risk. (I totally agree, it’s all about bodily autonomy and consent.) Clinton accuses Bush of only speaking about AIDS that night at the debate, which was a great moment.
Perot is asked how he’ll be able to accomplish anything with no party in power to carry his agenda. He says if an independent gets elected, they will have a unique mandate and Congress will be forced to listen to him because the people have rejected the current direction in politics. It may sound a little hyperbolic, but just look at how Bernie and Trump’s successes in 2016 changed the rhetoric if not agendas of their respective parties. If a big enough movement gains ground at the ballot box, at least one of the major parties will sweep in to become its champion, if even just to put a lid on a populist wave. This adaptation to changing electoral concerns in one of the reasons why we have realigning elections and new party systems every 40-50 years. In short, had Perot won with a definitive mandate, Democrats and/or Republicans would be falling over themselves to work with him on at least some issues they’d be willing to bend on, if only to ingratiate themselves to his base of supporters.
Later, Clinton lays out his plan for universal healthcare and it’s both amazing yet deeply tragic that it never happened. This is one issue where I really have to give Clinton his due credit—he obviously cares about this very deeply and has a real plan to get everyone covered. If only he had not given the task to Hillary we probably would have had universal healthcare in the ’90s. It is by far the most powerful moment of this entire debate. And what does Bush do in response? Gives a bullshit answer about how “frivolous lawsuits” are to blame for the lack of healthcare reform. If you watch the Documentary Hot Coffee on Netflix you will get an in-depth analysis on why this talking point is completely made up propaganda of the right. The fact that he stooped that low decreases my respect for Bush by half if that’s even possible. For his part, Perot points out we have the most expensive and only the 20th “best” healthcare system in the world. He says we should look at who has the best and copy them. Boom. Makes sense to me. Hence why I admire the Nordic model so much—it’s the best socio-economic system I’m aware of and its citizens consistently rank as among the happiest people on Earth.
Perot’s closing statement is worth watching for its genuine, frank honesty. He is not a pretentious man nor is he a polished civil servant, but he’s blunt and sincere and that absolutely counts for something. Perot really is all the positives of Trump with none of the negatives. Or, if Trump’s too scary to where that doesn’t sound good enough, then think of him as a Centrist Bernie, or a modern Wendell Willkie. Clinton’s and Bush’s closing statements are pretty blah. Again, typical cliches which at this point I’m totally sick of.
This was a great debate and absolutely one I recommend everyone check out. Aside from the novelty of a third candidate on stage, it’s a very passionate, no fluff, no nonsense discussion of policy. The questions are mostly very good and varied across multiple topics. The moderation is great and doesn’t overstep their boundaries. Each man is sufficiently different in style—Clinton is very much focused on appeals to emotion and painting a scene (“I’ve held a crack baby in my arms…”). Bush is a walking caricature of the post-Reagan GOP. I will say his appeals to honesty and experience might be effective to some, though they’re not to me because, like Clinton, I consider his experience “bad experience” and I know for a fact a lot of what he’s saying are lies. The real standout is Perot who is so different from what we had been conditioned to expect from debaters up to this point. Many of his predictions came true, and while his answers aren’t always what I wanted to hear, they’re a breath of fresh air and reasonable nonetheless. I would have voted for him in a heartbeat. He’s what Donald Trump should have been, and what I think a lot of Trump voters wanted Trump to be(come in office).
I kept track of the number of opportunities each person was given to speak. To my surprise and relief, it was equal. Especially after the first round went into a Bush/Clinton back and forth for a bit, I was worried Perot was not going to be given equal speaking time.