Steve Chapman

For years, I've been wishing for another Ross Perot -- a leader who would awaken the American people to the dangers of living beyond our national means through huge federal budget deficits. Now, at last, we have that leader. His name is Barack Obama.

Perot ran for president in 1992 as a third-party candidate, and an unlikely Pied Piper he was -- a short, crew-cut scold with a thick twang and a cranky manner who proposed to raise taxes. But his complaints about Washington's chronic overspending struck a chord with the public. A few months before the election, he was leading both incumbent George H.W. Bush and challenger Bill Clinton in the polls.

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Only his bizarre decision to withdraw (because, he claimed, the Bush campaign had a sinister plot to sabotage his daughter's wedding) popped the balloon. But after re-entering the race, brandishing charts and graphs in wonky half-hour infomercials, Perot managed to win 19 percent of the popular vote, one of the best showings ever by a third-party candidate.

His candidacy was not for nothing. It created a new awareness of a risky fiscal policy that, in Perot's words, was "robbing future generations." It caused Americans to consider whether fiscal indiscipline was defensible on either economic or moral terms. And it sowed the legitimate fear that deficits would be fatal to prosperity.

In the following years, Republicans and Democrats were forced to attack the deficit -- so much so that by the late 1990s, the government was running surpluses that no one had ever imagined. In January 2001, the month George W. Bush was sworn in, the Congressional Budget Office projected that over the next decade, the government would pile up $5.6 trillion in surpluses.

Alas, it didn't work out that way. A 2001 recession, two unforeseen wars and tax cuts put the federal government deep in the red. Politicians suddenly found plenty of excuses to abandon fiscal responsibility.

Both parties tacitly agreed to ignore the deficit in favor of their own priorities, which involved spending far more money than they were willing to ask taxpayers to provide. Instead of surpluses, we got deficits totaling more than $2 trillion between 2002 and 2008.

Those years now look like a model of budgetary restraint. In the 2009 fiscal year, the gap soared to an estimated $1.6 trillion -- the biggest deficit, as a share of the economy, since America was saving the world from Hitler. And the Perotistas of 1992 have given way to the tea partiers of 2009.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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