Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Divided, disenchanted and drowning in debt, the US needs a new Ross Perot
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The Independent Online

Of late I've been thinking a good deal about Ross Perot. Remember him? Perot was the diminutive billionaire who ran for the White House in 1992, the man with the jug ears and the Texas twang that sounded like chalk on a blackboard who kept banging on about America's massive public debt, "the crazy aunt that no one in the family wants to talk about".

Perot was much mocked. But he was the most successful US independent presidential candidate since Teddy Roosevelt and his breakaway Progressive Party in 1912. These days, you can't help feeling that Perot was ahead of his time. If he were around in 2008, he'd have to be the favourite right now. Has there ever been a time when America was more ripe for a third-party candidate from outside the present structure? The mood was sour back in 1992, but nowhere near as sour as now.

Of George Bush, say no more. But the Democrats are scarcely doing better. As for Congress, if anything it is in even greater disrepute than the President. A poll last week showed only a quarter of Democratic and Republican voters think their party represents their priorities. The message from the electorate is unmistakable: a plague on both your houses.

By some measures, people should be more cheerful. Sure, Iraq casts a dismal cloud. But the economy is doing fine: 4.3 per cent growth in the third quarter. The real problems go deeper: the deficits, the one in six of all Americans without health coverage, the once-great corporations, including General Motors, fighting to stave off bankruptcy, the widening gap between rich and poor. By almost three to one, Americans say the country is "on the wrong track", yet neither party seems to have a clue what to do about it.

Over the past half century, the US has flirted with the idea of an independent candidate - not surprisingly, since the summit of American political power is uniquely accessible to outsiders. Yes, Dwight Eisenhower ran as a Republican, but he came to the White House not as a product of the political system but as a war hero, the former supreme allied commander in the Second World War. Colin Powell, another high-profile military commander, might have won had he run in 1996.

Eisenhower and Powell were genuine national figures. Perot came out of nowhere. He declared his availability on Larry King's TV show in February 1992. Three months later, he briefly led both Bill Clinton and George Bush Snr in the polls. In July, he dropped out of the race, only to re-enter in September, accusing Republican operatives of plotting to disrupt his daughter's wedding. A lot of people thought he was crazy, but that didn't stop him winning 19 per cent of the vote, doing better than any third-party candidate since Roosevelt's 27 per cent in 1912. Unfortunately, he carried no states, thanks to a winner-takes-all system that penalises third parties, just as it hurts the Liberal Democrats in Britain.

At 75, Perot is a bit past it now. But the temptation for an independent to make a serious run at the White House must be strong. The question is, who? There are two obvious places to look: the military (10 of the 43 presidents have been generals) and big business.

In this age of security angst, when America's soldiers - unlike its politicians - are venerated, the military ought to have a head start. But Wesley Clark, the brainy and handsome former Nato commander, tried in 2004 and, running as a Democrat, won just a single primary. Americans, it seems, like their generals on the battlefield, but reckon hard-nosed businessmen get things done. And getting things done is what the country wants now.

It helps, too, that businessmen tend to be rich. Perot spent $70m of his $2bn-plus fortune on the 1992 campaign, yet that somehow made him "cleaner" than the main-party candidates, enmeshed in the dark arts of fundraising. For all his eccentricities, he had a beguilingly folksy yet trenchant turn of phrase: "If someone as blessed as I am is not willing to clean out the barn, who will?"

Nor was he the first of his kind. Many Democrats wanted to draft Lee Iacocca, former boss and saviour of Chrysler, for the 1988 campaign. But despite polls showing him trouncing George Bush Snr, the all-but-certain Republican nominee, Iacocca declined. "I don't mind running," he said. "But what happens if I win?"

If a new Perot is out there, politicians should watch out. Some say the entrenched party system will prevail, and that in any case, a soldier or businessman, used to a straightforward world in which orders become deeds, would be crazy to venture into the devious, endlessly procrastinating universe of politics. Crazy? Doesn't that bring us back to li'l ol' Ross?