Perot, Revised

Pat Buchanan's recent defection to the Reform Party has led to a lot of soul-searching within the Republican Party. Spurred in part by fears that "Pitchfork Pat" could siphon off votes from the next GOP nominee, Republicans of all stripes have been harshly critical of their onetime ally. That's understandable. What's more surprising, however, is the extent to which the GOP has rewritten the history of the last two campaigns to give Ross Perot all the credit for Clinton's presidential wins.

Consider the following. In a September interview with Larry King, Pat Robertson denounced Buchanan as a spoiler likely to shatter the GOP's electoral hopes. "That's what Perot did," he noted. "If you go back, Perot got 19 percent of the vote in '92 and . . . about 8 percent in '96 in that Reform Party, and all they did was just throw the election to the Democrats." Henry McMaster, chairman of the South Carolina GOP, told The New York Times that Perot's 1992 campaign "certainly hurt George Bush. We lost an election because of it." Even the elder George Bush agrees. "In the final analysis," he writes in his newly released collection of his letters, "Perot cost me the election."

But is that really true? Most analysts don't think so. In fact, according to the polls, the main consequence of Perot's two campaigns was to deny Bill Clinton an outright majority of the popular vote. Perot championedissues like international trade, campaign finance reform, and the budget deficit—issues that don't necessarily benefit the GOP. And Perot's supporters included many blue-collar workers who preferred Clinton to Bush and Dole. Most analysts agree that Perot backers would have split almost evenly between the major parties if their candidate hadn't been in the race.

Of course, blaming Ross Perot for the Clinton presidency may be smart strategy—a way to remind wayward conservatives of the consequences of leaving the GOP fold. But the persistence of the myth also speaks to larger misgivings within the Republican Party. Many Republicans simply cannot understand how the American people could have elected—and re-elected—a president like Bill Clinton. He only survived the impeachment crisis, they say, because the economy happened to be in decent shape. And now, by overstating Perot's importance, they can write him off as an electoral accident.

In the Republican version of history, Bush deserves no blame for his defeat—rather, the GOP lost the White House because of the quixotic campaign of a Dumbo-eared interloper, a self-obsessed maverick with no concern for the common good. In fact, George Bush wasdenied re-election because he presided over a lackluster administration and a shaky economy, and because Bill Clinton's program spoke to the economic concerns of average Americans. Republicans interested in regaining the presidency need to come to grips with that—or George W. may meet hisfather's fate.