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Thinking back, it is hard to believe Ross Perot nearly upturned the two party system in 1992. He received almost 19% of the vote, which was more than an independent had received since 1912 - when a former President ran. Perot had a staggering array of disadvantages: The absence of even a bare bones third party infrastructure, no political experience whatsoever, an untelegenic face and somewhat high pitched (and grating) voice, a running mate who seemed simultaneously authentic and buffoonish, and a continually prickly reaction to the prying and publicity that comes with any serious bid for the White House. And then of course there was the epic freakout. Ahead in the polls, he abruptly dropped out of the race, then dropped back in several weeks later and accused the Republicans of trying to sabotage his daughter’s wedding. He seemed, literally, to be having a nervous breakdown in full public view. And after all that he still captured nearly a fifth of the electorate!
He had some advantages as well obviously. Sometimes in politics anti-charisma can be charisma. Washington has famously been described as Hollywood for ugly people; physical disadvantages can come across as genuine, the common touch, lack of affectation and so on. He was also in possession of a gigantic pile of money. A good chunk of it came via government contracts, but he still successfully played the “private sector hero” card. He also used his money exceptionally well - in addition to other spending he bought entire 30 minute blocks of time and used them to focus on the issue that catapulted him to popularity seemingly overnight: The budget deficit. Americans were terribly anxious over the unwillingness of our leaders to pay for their spending (seems quaint now doesn’t it?) and Perot focused on it to the exclusion of just about everything else. And people responded with wild enthusiasm. His disadvantages were substantially muted because he spoke directly and maturely to an issue of vital importance to many of his countrymen.
Now, there are plenty of dissimilarities in 2008. I don’t think Bob Barr is the second coming of Perot; at this point in the 1992 cycle the “Ross For Boss” rocket had already launched. Also, if anyone was going to catch lightning in a bottle this time I think it would have been Ron Paul, who no longer has an obvious route to the ballot. And while the GOP base is suspicious with a “waited his turn” nominee and a lot of Democrats are fired up about a charismatic newcomer, these parallels are mostly superficial.
What is real and very similar, though, is the restlessness of a good part of the electorate. Last week may have seen the start of a new alliance between civil libertarian-minded citizens on the right and the left with the creation of The Strange Bedfellows. It began largely in response to the FISA reform bill, and look at the events surrounding it: Steny Hoyer negotiated it behind closed doors, introduced it and less than 24 hours later engineered a vote (with the blessing of Nancy Pelosi), all in the face of outrage from the left. A site was created for contributions to oppose it and it raised six figures literally overnight. Democratic capitulation on the burgeoning surveillance state has created tension that seeks an outlet. The party’s continued rubber stamp of the President’s hugely unpopular Iraq policy is another source of tremendous frustration.
Democrats are playing a dangerous game. They apparently reason that Republicans will bear the brunt of dissatisfaction over Washington’s unpopular policies. That may well be true. The GOP faces a disaster this year because they gained control of all major parts of government and then engaged in an orgy of excess, alienating moderates and depressing their loyalists. Having achieved their electoral goal they spent all their credibility very quickly. Democrats seem to be in the process of a sellout of a different sort. They seized control of both houses of Congress but seem oblivious (or indifferent) to the public’s anger. Instead they seem to be playing a game of political jujitsu, using the overexertions of the right to give them leverage to flip them totally off the mat. It may be a brilliant tactical move but one with long term risks. First, urgent policy issues fester because no meaningful action can happen under such a strategy. That leads to the second problem, deep dissatisfaction with what comes to be seen as a lesser of two evils. By eschewing opposition the Democrats are creating a pool of thwarted activists. Such people are primed to create new realities or respond to the latest version of a quirky billionaire with homemade charts. I’ve written before about the Republicans’ implosion; the ground may be shifting underneath the Democrats as well.