Reform Party candidate Ross Perot is suing the Commission on the Presidential Debates for excluding him and his running mate Pat Choate, from the October square-offs between Republican and Democratic Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates. In an exclusive Newsmaker interview, Perot discusses the law suit, supply-side economics, and drug abuse.
JIM LEHRER: We begin tonight with a Newsmaker interview with Reform Party presidential candidate Ross Perot. He filed a federal lawsuit yesterday demanding the presidential debates be stopped unless he is included. He joins us tonight from Dallas, Texas. Mr. Perot, welcome.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
Sept. 17, 1996
Co-chair of the bipartisan Commission on the Presidential Debates, Paul Kirk, visits the NewsHour to defend the commission's decision to exclude Ross Perot from the presidential debates. But Perot running-mate Pat Choate tells Margaret Warner that the move is unfair.
Sept. 12, 1996
David Gergen discusses Ross Perot with Gerald Posner, author of Citizen Perot, His Life and Times.
Sept. 11, 1996
The regional commentators debate whether or not Ross Perot should participate in the debates.
Aug. 19, 1996
David Broder of Washington Post, Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times, and Elizabeth Arnold of National Public Radio, and pollster Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press discuss the impact of a Perot candidacy.
Aug. 19, 1996
Tom Bearden reports on the Reform Party's convention in Valley Forge, PA.
July 16, 1996
Jim Lehrer conducts a newsmaker interview with Ross Perot.
July 12, 1996
Charlayne Hunter-Gault explores the role of third parties in the upcoming election.
Browse The NewsHour's coverage of the Election Campaign
ROSS PEROT, Reform Party Presidential Candidate: Jim, how are you?
JIM LEHRER: Just fine, sir, just fine. Your suit claims constitutional rights are being violated. Do you believe that you have the constitutional right to be in these presidential debates?
MR. PEROT: I believe that when 76 percent of the voters want me in the debates, they should have a voice that overrides five Democrats and five Republicans in the Debate Commission who don't want me in the debates. This is about letting the people listen to the candidates. Jim, in today's world, if you're not in the presidential debates, you can't be competitive.
The third presidential debate in 1992 had an audience of 97 million people. So let's go back to what this country is supposed to be about. The voters own this country. The people own this country, not five Republicans and five Democrats. Jim, they wouldn't even talk to anyone in the Reform Party while they were meeting with one another all through the two parties. They thinks this belongs to them. The American people don't even know that this is a private corporation, funded privately, and they don't know that this organization won't even tell you who funds it. We'll get that in a few days, and we'll tell you, and you're going to see some really big special interests who fund the Debate Commission.
So we're going to pull this little skunk up by the tail and let the American people see how the system is being manipulated and why the people have to pay the price but don't get the benefits.
JIM LEHRER: But isn't the ultimate decision up to President Clinton and Bob Dole whether they want to debate you or not, Mr. Perot?
MR. PEROT: No. No. This country does not belong to the Democrats and Republicans.
JIM LEHRER: No. What I mean is, aren't they the ones that made the decision ultimately to exclude you?
MR. PEROT: I don't know. The five commissioners made the decision. President Clinton said he wanted to debate me. Sen. Dole made it very clear he didn't want me there under any circumstances. And I can understand that. They don't want to talk about the real issues that will determine the country our children live in. The last thing they want me to do is go through their figures, from their budgets, like the ‘95 budget, page 25, where they say that a little baby born tonight will pay an 82 percent tax rate. They don't want to talk about that in an election year. We do because we want to leave our children a better country.
JIM LEHRER: Do you--you really do want a federal judge to order President Clinton and Bob Dole to debate you? Do you think that's a legitimate function of the federal government?
MR. PEROT: I think that when the people want a candidate to participate in a debate, and when that candidate meets all the objective criteria of the Debate Commission, that that candidate should not be excluded based on their subjective criteria that they come up with just to manipulate it. Jim, this is what's wrong with our country now. The two political parties and the people who fund their campaigns control this country, not the people who own this country, the voters. The voters want me there.
I have given five years of my life to the American people to give them a voice in government. I don't want to even spend a minute trying to get over to you how tough it was to create this party in all 50 states. Every impediment that could be put in front of us was put there, but the people did it, and now to deny them the vital access that is necessary, if you can't get on television, you can't be competitive, and I can prove that from ‘92. You can see before and after the debates my ratings went through the roof after the American people got to hear straight from me, as opposed to hearing indirectly from other people, uh, their analysis of me.
JIM LEHRER: Would you want--would you have wanted a federal judge to intervene--let's say that Dick Lamm--you chose not to debate him--let's say that he had gone to federal court and asked that you be ordered to debate Dick Lamm in front of the Reform Party.
MR. PEROT: It wouldn't have bothered me a bit.
JIM LEHRER: Would you have gone along with that? You'd have gone along with that?
MR. PEROT: Well, sure, because we went along with everything he wanted to do. Every time--keep in mind--I bore all the costs of the conventions and what have you. Tell me one time in the history of politics when somebody spent money to give another person a voice again and again and again. We did that for Governor Lamm--right at the last minute--we had to do all the planning, all the execution, pay all the bills--we were delighted to have him participate. We--he raised a big issue. He raised a new issue every day to get press attention, and one day he was all upset about in what sequence he would speak.
So I called him. I said, Dick, what is this, and he says, well, I want to know what--when I'm going to speak? I said, when do you want to speak? He said, I want to speak first. I said, fine, you can speak first. Then he said, I want to put other people on to speak for me. I said, fine. We humored everything he wanted to do. Then in about the last two or three weeks before the debate, he came up with this idea one day. We did not have time to plan a debate, get a convention center, pay for it, and what have you, because he had an opportunity to speak back-to-back with me and, in effect, have a debate at our convention, and we did it exactly the way he wanted to do it.
Jim, you know, as bright as you are, that these are two irrelevant comparisons. This Debate Commission has been set up and established, and it was so corrupt that the League of Women Voters got away from it.
JIM LEHRER: Corrupt is a very strong word, Mr. Perot. What do you mean, “corrupt?”
MR. PEROT: Well, you--
JIM LEHRER: In what way is it corrupt? What is that--what is your charge in terms of corruption of the Debate Commission?
MR. PEROT: Because they're denying the people in this country access to a candidate that they want to hear from. 76 percent of the people want to hear from me. All the objective criteria I met.
JIM LEHRER: Well, that--
MR. PEROT: Because the establishment didn't want us to have a voice and because they want to protect the two-party system and because they do not want a third party under any circumstances, they subjectively froze us out.
JIM LEHRER: Well, let me--let me go back--
MR. PEROT: Now you pick the right word, Jim. I chose the word “corrupt.”
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Let me go back to the--to my earlier point, though. If, if Bob Dole wanted to debate you, he's free to do that any place. If President Clinton wanted to debate you, he's free to do that. If they wanted to together, what I'm trying to get to--the Debate Commission has no power, does it? Is--you just said it was a private company. They can't force anybody to do anything. I don't understand why you're not suing them, in other words, President Clinton and Bob Dole, rather than the Debate Commission. That's the bottom line.
MR. PEROT: Well, I'll have my lawyers talk to you in the morning. I followed their advice, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. But I mean, you don't see--
MR. PEROT: The point is, obviously you feel very, very strongly that I shouldn't be doing this, that we should maintain the status quo.
JIM LEHRER: No, no.
MR. PEROT: See, I have--
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Perot, please, do not put words into my mouth, sir. I did not say anything--I'm--
MR. PEROT: The question you have asked me is defending the Democrats and Republicans for what they did.
JIM LEHRER: No, sir. I'm just trying to get at why you believe--why you're doing what you're doing. That's all.
MR. PEROT: I'm doing this because I am deeply concerned about the future of our country. I want our children to have the same and better opportunities than we had. That's my only interest. And when I look at these numbers, if you go to the Office of Management & Budget memo in 1994, one year after the biggest tax increase in history, the President's office forecast that in the year 2030, our debt will be increasing at the rate of $4.1 trillion per year. That's 4/5 of the amount each year of new debt that it took us 200 years to accumulate the $5 trillion we have today.
And then finally when I go to page 18 of their 1997 budget, I read that using the accounting formula assets minus liabilities equal net worth, they calculate that our country has a negative net worth--that's called bankruptcy in business--of $2.98 trillion, and they left out $17 trillion in unfunded federal guarantees, which would make it close to a $20 trillion negative net worth.
Any business would have to put in those unfunded federal guarantees. We've got to deal with these problems. They don't even want to talk about them. And we have created a new party to give the people a voice because the two parties are bought and paid for by the special interests. And we're proving that again here in the Debate Commission because when I get the names of the people who fund it, you're going to see the same people and the same special interests who give a lot of money and get a huge return for their contributions.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Perot--
MR. PEROT: And we're going to stop that, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: --was the Federal Reserve right not to raise interest rates today?
MR. PEROT: I'll have to leave that up to them. Uh, I--I can answer your question the next--the first time they meet after the election if they raise interest rates, uh, I'll say, no, that was wrong because it's all politics. Now, that's to say why don't we do what's good for our country, instead of playing this game and the game right now has really hurt the American people. It's time we stopped it.
JIM LEHRER: The President said today that the Federal Reserve did the right thing because it indicated that the U.S. economy was in good shape, that inflation was under control. Do you agree with the President's assessment of the U.S. economy?
MR. PEROT: No. The U.S. economy is not in good shape. Four out of--the standard of living for four out of five working Americans is down. One paycheck today has about the same--excuse me--a man and a wife working together today, getting two paychecks, have bout the same buying power as one paycheck twenty-five years ago.
Twenty million jobs have been exported overseas from our country. Everywhere you go, get the ten part series in the “Philadelphia Enquirer,” and you'll see fact after fact after fact, and if you don't have time for that, look at our cumulative trade deficit of $1 trillion. That's the largest trade deficit in the history of man. That's 20 million jobs that have gone overseas. We have got to rebuild our job base in this country, or we have no chance to balance our budget and pay our debt because people without jobs or people with low-paying jobs don't pay the taxes we'll need. Plus, we need a strong middle class. The middle class is going down now, and that is a terrible signal for the 21st century.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Senator Dole's solution to that is his economic reform plan which includes a 15 percent tax cut. Do you think that's a good idea?
MR. PEROT: That's free candy just before an election. In 1992, when George Bush was proposing almost the identical idea, Bob Dole said it didn't make any sense. It didn't make any sense then. It doesn't make any sense now. Let me give you an example. Let's assume I'm hopelessly in debt, Jim, I can't pay my bills. That's the way the good old USA is.
And I come to you for advice, and I say, Jim, I'm hopelessly in debt, I can't pay my bills, what should I do? You look at me and smile and say, Ross, get your boss to cut your salary. That's a perfect analogy. You can't get dumber than that. Now, Jim, we tried trickle down economics in the 1980's, and everybody called it voodoo economics. It didn't trickle. It didn't work, and that's when the debt started just taking off like a rocket.
Only in America would we try it again, and to bring that up in an election is nothing more than trying to manipulate the American people with free candy, and before you take that candy, folks, remember this one--from 1988, watch my lips, no new taxes--how many of us voted for that? And then we got the mother of all tax increases a little bit later. That's politics, and if we allow ourselves to be manipulated that way, we deserve what we get.
JIM LEHRER: If you were elected president, in general terms, what would you do to improve the economy?
MR. PEROT: First thing you have to do is understand that all of these things that are hurting the economy are interrelated like pieces of a complex puzzle. Washington doesn't understand that. Here's what you have. You have Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, all the--and a declining job base which gives you a declining tax base--all these things have to be worked on together. You've got to do something that Washington has never done before, and that is when you have a big program like let's say Medicare, you've got to design it and engineer it carefully.
You cannot have a noble concept, massive legislation, with no detailed blueprint, nationwide implementation with no pilot testing, optimizing, and debugging, because all you get is mediocre and sub-par performance with the costs going through the roof, and that's true of all of our social programs. They've got to be carefully, thoughtfully, and rationally redesigned, re-engineered, tested, and made to work. Then you've got to build your job base so that you have a tax base. We've got--
JIM LEHRER: Excuse me. How would you build the job--how would you as President build the job base?
MR. PEROT: We would create jobs here in the United States, instead of shipping jobs overseas.
JIM LEHRER: But how would you--as President, how would you do it?
MR. PEROT: --jobs--Jim, I'd stop making stupid, one-sided trade agreements. I am for fair, free international trade. I am not for stupid, one-sided international trade. And if you don't think ours is, look at our trade deficit, our cumulative trade deficit of a trillion dollars, look at NAFTA that was supposed to make us all rich, the trade deficit is going through the roof, getting bigger every year, not working. The people of Mexico are not benefitting. They've been devastated in the year since NAFTA started. But look at our trading partners. Look at the car deal that the Europeans negotiated with Japan; it's a whole lot smarter than ours. We are bought and paid for by the special interests.
For example, most of our chief trade negotiators become foreign lobbyists when they leave. If we get elected, all that will stop. We will stop coming to Washington to cash in when you leave. You come to serve and you go home. All those things are in our principles. That's what the American people want. We will see that it gets done. We will have a new tax system, Jim, but it will be carefully and--we won't run up and down the streets screaming flat tax or some other buzzword.
We'll take the computer, use it as a wind tunnel, carefully analyze all the different options, pick the best ones, then explain them in detail to the American people, show them how it impacts each one in his paycheck, then we're going to have a referendum and let the people choose the tax system that they think makes the most sense because they own the country and they have to pay for it.
JIM LEHRER: You mean have a national referendum on it?
MR. PEROT: National referendum among these systems and let the people say that's not what we think.
JIM LEHRER: Not do--not let Congress do it?
MR. PEROT: No. Have a referendum and then let Congress if they want to stick it in their eye. I don't think they will because they'll know what the people want. But we will have done it. We will have designed it in detail. We'll have tested it in detail. We'll know what it will do, and then here is the best part of it. We're going to have a provision in the law that says from this point forward, Congress cannot increase taxes without putting it on the ballot in the next federal election. Think this one through, Jim.
The whole House is running. A third of the Senate is running. The President of the United States is running. They'd better have a really good reason to raise taxes. Now, that plus a balanced budget amendment will put discipline on spending. Now, do you understand why they don't want us in the debates? They don't want to talk about this. They want to hand out free candy. They want to build bridges. They want to feel your pain. They want to do these little things. See, we want to change the campaign. We--we want campaign reform, where if you're a congressman, you have to get all the--
JIM LEHRER: Let me--
MR. PEROT: --money from your district. If you're a senator, you've got to get it all from your state, and you can't take it from the special interests. You take it from the people.
JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you about an issue that's been raised in this campaign by Sen. Dole. And it has to do with the increase in drug use by teen-agers. He blames this partly on President Clinton. What do you think the cause is?
MR. PEROT: Well, if we weren't using them, it wouldn't be an issue. The real cause is that as a people, our morals and ethics are declining. I went around the world as a young naval officer. We were gone for a year. Drugs were everywhere. The sailors on my ship were products of the Depression. They grew up in hard times. Nobody ever touched drugs.
They knew that stuff would ruin your life. A different time today--we've got to teach our people, then we're going to have to be very, very firm with all these countries that are dumping drugs into our country and just make it clear that if they want to trade with us--and they all do--they've got to stop shipping drugs, and then finally we've got to be very, very aggressive against the major drug dealers and the countries that are growing these drugs, and just stop playing patty cake or since drugs are so addictive--now think how hard it is to give up dessert--drugs really grab a person.
As you may know--as you do know, Jim, I spent a year and a half of my life on this, have very strong feelings that a big part of the future of our country, a huge part of the crime problem, the violence, the things that permeate our country today come from drugs. If I'm your President, we are going to deal with it, and we are going to deal with it in a very direct way, and I'm going to have the American people involved in every little neighborhood in the country, and we're going to get rid of drugs to protect our children. I sound like a broken record, because my whole interest is what the country, we leave our children. Jim, you're my age roughly. You and I grew up in the Depression.
We know how our parents sacrificed. Look at the country they gave us in spite of those sacrifices. And I can't live with, and I know you couldn't either, being the first generation in our country's history that didn't pass on a better, stronger country because we spent our children's money and we let society decay to the point where drugs and every other strange type of behavior is now a way to be a hero and get on the front pages of the magazines. Good, decent people you never hear of. If I get to be President, you're going to hear a lot about good, decent people, and they will be our heroes, not these folks that are just aberrations that you really should regret are even in society.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Perot, thank you very much.
MR. PEROT: A privilege to be with you, and thank you, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Yes, sir.