One of the most macabre images I've ever heard described came in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami in 2004. Before the tidal wave crashed on shore, beachgoers stood around and idly gaped as the water drastically receded. Bewildered, they didn't realize they were looking at the prelude to a calamity.
The Democratic Party looks more and more like those beachgoers every day, watching popular support recede, oblivious to the Perot tsunami coming our way.
In 1992, the incumbent president, George H.W. Bush, was a disappointment to his party's base and a pariah to the Democrats. Government seemed to have lost its grip. The deficit became a massive issue, a symbol of out-of-control government. The hangover of Cold War sacrifices, the S&L bailout, runaway crime, huge trade deficits, the long-term trend of manufacturing decline and, of course, the recession contributed to the sense that America desperately needed to get its house in order.
Ross Perot, a quirky Texas billionaire, tapped into that anxiety perfectly. Western, pro-business, no-nonsense, pro-choice and pro-gun, culturally conservative but with little interest in culture-war issues, he managed to thread the needle between both parties. He also benefited enormously from the fact that his independent bid for the presidency was seen by the press as an indictment of both the incumbent Republican and the "Reagan deficits" that Democrats and the media had been denouncing for years. At one point, Perot led in the polls, and if he hadn't dropped out and then rejoined (or had he not been so Yosemite Sam-goofy), he might have done even better than his historic 19 percent of the popular vote.
It's still debated whether Perot cost Bush the election. But even if Clinton would have won regardless, Perot's candidacy had an underappreciated significance. He forced Clinton to double-down on his "New Democrat" appeals. Clinton had already fashioned himself as a "different kind of Democrat" who would "end welfare as we know it." But the Perotista revolt of "raging moderates" and "angry centrists" reinforced Clinton's rhetorical commitments and the voters' expectations.
Historian Richard Hofstadter identified the phenomenon decades earlier when he wrote of third parties in U.S. politics: "Their function has not been to win or govern but to agitate, educate, generate new ideas and supply the dynamic element in our political life."
He added: "Third parties are like bees: Once they have stung, they die." The Perotistas stung in 1992.