Ross Perot best characterized as leader of Anti-Reform Party

Former Democratic Gov. Richard Lamm of Colorado, who wants to be the presidential nominee of the Reform Party, has found out from Ross Perot that just because someone advocates fair campaign competition in theory doesn’t mean that he supports it in practice. In the hands of Perot, as in many others’ these days, the slogan of “reform” is nothing other than an easily hidden weapon–the “Saturday night special” of politics. As a weapon, of course, you use it on other people, never on yourself.

Last spring Ross Perot was a figure of august humilty, telling Larry King on TV that he did not want to run again and was looking instead for some “George Washington the Second” to be the Reform Party candidate. Perhaps there should be several candidates. But when Lamm, a politician with an honorable, if maverick, pedigree, suggested that he was interested in the nomination, Perot dropped the coyness ploy and announced his own candidacy the next day. Having failed to locate a new George Washington, it looks like we’ll have to settle for a new Napoleon. After all, Napoleon called himself a reformer, too.

There would have been nothing wrong if Perot had opened himself to an immediate series of debates and given Lamm access to the party’s voting lists. But Perot, to date, has declined to debate Lamm. And the party’s Perot-picked coordinator, Russell Verney, has made the weak claim that letting Lamm have access to the Reform Party lists would constitute an illegal campaign contribution. It’s a fine illustration of the way that political “reform” regulations are invoked to pervert democracy instead of to improve it.

Seen in the perspective of his political career, Perot’s display of old fashioned machine politics is simply the latest expression of his long-standing double-standard.

He wants “reform” laws to limit what others can give to political candidates, but wants to be free to spend his own vast fortune on his own candidacy.

He wants laws restricting contributions to political parties, but so far has laddled $4.4 million of his own money into Reform Party coffers and has laoned the party another $1.5 million.

He rails against special interests and lobbyists, but made his own fortune largely in business deals with the government, which he lobbied hard.

In 1992, he attacked both parties for failing to cut federal spending and reduce the future federal budget deficit, but when the Republicans offered actual spending reforms after their 1994 Congressional victory, Perot stayed out of the fight. It wasn’t that he had a better idea; he just couldn’t be bothered to put his influence on the line.

The Dallas billionaire first gave us a glimpse of his true political nature four years ago when he ran as an independent presidential candidate and head of United We Stand, America, an organization he created. To hear Citizen Perot tell it, the United States was tyrannized by the two major parties. But, in fact, the Republicans and Democrats are governed by federal and state regulations that, if anything, have become overly restrictive during the past two decades. In some places, for example, it is even illegal for a local party to help the national party’s ticket.

Meanwhile, however, United We Stand, America was established under the tax law as a mere civic organization, rather than a party, and thereby escaped public disclosure requirements and other legal provisions that regulate Republicans and Democrats. The whole organization could be–and was–centrally controlled by one man. Yet from that legal sanctuary Perot sallied forth to attack–get this–the “corruption” of the two major parties.

The United We Stand, America story is instructive. It shows the way non-parties can operate as parties and get away with it. Many of the most powerful groups in society today use the law exactly as Perot did, and some even set up tax-deductible charitable groups to go along with their campaign-related activities. That way, funds for campaign research, voter “education” during campaigns and voter turn-out efforts, can be washed through tax-free entities. You would think that real reformers would want to look into these strange creatures. Some of them represent a cost to the federal treasury and–the real unfairness–they place the over-regulated political parties at a disadvantage. Yet, guess what? Mr. Perot and other professional “reformers”–some of whose organizations also use the law the way he did– have nothing at all to say about them.

The Perot campaign this year did decide to organize as a party and that party does have to display its rules–or its lack of rules. And, unhappily for the party’s boss-financier-leading candidate, there has emerged this naive, but strenuous, competition from Richard Lamm. Apparently, there is to be another round in the nomination process. Boss Ross will surely win, but it may not be a pretty sight. In the final election voters may decide that the Perot ticket should be re-named the “Anti-Reform Party.”

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.