Remember the big ears and the "giant sucking sound"?
Yes, he's back. As political strategists turn their eyes to 2006 and 2008, the candidate you're going to be hearing a lot about is Ross Perot.
To understand why, let's go to the polls.
Once, George W. Bush's numbers seemed immovable. How could such an incompetent idiot remain so popular? Post-Katrina, post–Scooter Libby indictment, post–Iraq quagmire, Bush's Teflon is finally deeply scratched. Blue America has long been discontent; red America solidly loyal. But now he's losing ground among reds and, more importantly, independents. Bush's approval ratings are nose-diving, and discontent with his leadership and questions about his fundamental integrity are on the rise. Each poll seems to bring a new low.
Take just a few of the latest numbers. According to the latest Washington Post/ABC poll, the president's approval rating is at 39 percent; CNN/USA Today/Gallup has him at 37 percent; Fox at 36 percent; CBS at 35 percent. Can you say "consensus"? His disapproval ratings are starting to hit 60 percent, territory unmatched since the days of Richard Nixon.
Most important, there's a broad sense of dissatisfaction in the land, despite an economy that looks pretty good on paper. According to an October poll from the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the country and 69 percent want the next president, whoever he or she is, to pursue different policies.
Among political independents, 77 percent want a new direction.
The public is still open-minded about who is offering the best solutions, however. Dissatisfaction with the two dominant parties and Congress is high. Approval of the Democratic and Republican congressional leadership is around 32 percent for each.
The fact that swing voters and independents are so much in play is setting off a scramble as the two parties seek to court them.
Democratic political strategists are showing interest in two somewhat overlapping groups: the so-called Indycrats and the type of voters who supported Ross Perot's run for president in 1992.
The Indycrats are independents who lean Democratic on many major issues, such as abortion and Social Security. They are very dissatisfied with Bush's performance regarding the war in Iraq and the economy. According to a recent CBS poll, 66 percent of independents disapproved of Bush's handling of the economy and only 25 percent think Bush has the same priorities they have. Ruy Teixeira, co-author with John Judis of The Emerging Democratic Majority, analyzes the situation on his Donkey Rising blog (www.emergingdemocraticmajorityweblog.com). Poll data indicate that independents and Democrats "have converged so strongly in their political views that we could almost lump them together as one group, 'Indycrats.' . . . " Teixeira says that instead of a 50-50 polarized split, the electorate is, in fact, split 60-30, Indycrats versus far-right Republicans. The question for the Democrats is how to turn this into an electoral majority.
Some Democrats believe the secret is to move toward the politics of Perot-style independents. In a recent memo, Democracy Corps—a political strategy group consisting of James Carville, Stanley Greenberg, and Robert Shrum—described the opportunity this way:
"The Democrats should revisit the Perot voters and their concerns. . . . His voters were the most anti-political and anti-elitist, anti–big government and big corporations, anti–free trade and anti-immigration. They were pro-military but anti–foreign entanglements. They were libertarian and secular, pro-gun and pro-choice. The Perot voters were younger, more blue collar and rural, and economically pressed and uneasy in the new economy. They were also angry with political and economic elites that failed to represent them. . . . Democrats have to step back and make a break with the past that enables them to speak to these voters again."
In short, think beyond the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party and revive the party's appeal to populists and Reagan Democrats.
Republicans, too, are eyeing these voters. Mavericks like senators John McCain of Arizona and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska are thought to be populist enough, reform-minded enough, at times willing to buck both Bush and their party enough to appeal to independents.
One takeaway from last week's election is that voters can reward candidates who run against type but are willing to punish them if they don't deliver as advertised.
In New York, liberal Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg was re-elected in a landslide in a Democratic city. In Virginia, Democrat Tim Kaine won the governorship in a conservative state in part because he talked about religion like a Republican. The race also demonstrated the impact of Bush's current unpopularity: The president's campaign appearance embarrassingly drove voters into Kaine's camp, not his GOP opponent's.
In California, voters defeated a raft of initiatives put on the ballot by Arnold Schwarzenegger—a humiliating loss for a governor whose power has relied on his ability to "go to the people." Schwarzenegger originally ran, and promised to govern, as an outsider, but his popularity has plummeted as he has more and more been tied to the GOP agenda.
Which should be a reminder that it's one thing for politicians to pander to independents and another to actually be independent. As loony as Perot was, no one questioned that he was his own man. Can either major party find a sane presidential candidate who will do the same?
If so, they might have a winner.