PLANO, Texas -- Twenty years from the day he shook up the 1992 presidential race with warnings of economic doom, Ross Perot feels vindicated -- though he's not happy about it.
The national debt -- $4 trillion and rising when he sounded the fiscal alarm by challenging President George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton -- stands at $16 trillion. The annual deficit -- a record $290 billion then -- has topped $1 trillion four years running.
As was the case a generation ago, budget experts agree that neither major party candidate for president has a credible plan to balance the budget. President Obama wants more government spending to help create jobs. The centerpiece of Republican nominee Mitt Romney's plan is $5 trillion in tax cuts.
So when the country may be in even greater need of another Ross Perot, the 82-year-old Texas billionaire is re-emerging, ever so slightly, from self-imposed exile. With a USA TODAY interview and C-SPAN appearance -- and with an autobiography on the way -- Perot is peddling one more cure for what he calls the nation's "economic cancer."
"I didn't get done what I hoped I'd get done" in 1992, he says, seated before a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington in an office teeming with artifacts and memorabilia from his personal life, private exploits and business ventures. "Whether I got elected or not, I hoped they'd all get busy and straighten it out. That hasn't happened yet, and this is my last big effort here."
In many ways, the effort itself is extraordinary. Since running twice for the presidency -- his 19% showing in 1992, despite temporarily dropping out of the race, was the strongest third-party candidacy since Theodore Roosevelt's a century ago -- Perot has gradually receded from the public square. His rare interviews have sidestepped both policy and politics.
He's still avoiding one thing: an endorsement in this year's campaign. Though members of his family have donated almost exclusively to Republicans in recent years, Perot is an equal-opportunity critic, unimpressed with both Obama and Romney when it comes to addressing the nation's red ink.
"We're on the edge of the cliff, and we have got to start fixing it now. Otherwise, we're leaving a disaster to our children's and our grandchildren's future," he says in the East Texas twang that spiced up the presidential debates 20 years ago. "Nobody that's running really talks about it, about what we have to do and why we have to do it. They would prefer not to have it discussed."
The proud founder of Electronic Data Systems and, later, Perot Systems -- businesses he sold to General Motors and Dell, respectively, en route to a $3.5 billion fortune -- doesn't mince words on other topics. He berates the nation's public schools and the teachers' unions he says put their own interests first. He blames the news media for downplaying serious issues such as the deficit and harassing people who seek political office. He says the president and members of Congress should cut their salaries until they resolve the fiscal mess they've created.
And, somewhat ominously, he warns that another country could establish supremacy over the United States if it continues to go deeper and deeper into debt.
"The last thing I ever want to see is our country taken over because we're so financially weak, we can't do anything," Perot says.
'Put a cork on the bottle'
The man who barged midstream into fellow Texan George H.W. Bush's re-election race and, many say, helped Clinton win the White House has no political fire in his belly anymore. "I'm too old to do it now," he says matter-of-factly.
Instead, he's lending his name and endorsement to the less well-known, but no less determined, pied pipers of the deficit-reduction movement -- in particular David Walker, the former U.S. comptroller general who is on a nationwide bus tour of political swing states to educate Americans about the economic and fiscal challenges.
"There's no question that we're worse today than we were in 1992," Walker says during the joint interview. His organization, Comeback America Initiative, has compiled a slide show of charts and graphs detailing the growth of federal spending, deficits and debt, fueled by retiring Baby Boomers, soaring health care costs and more than $1 trillion a year in tax breaks.
"We need these (presidential) debates to be more specific, substantive and solutions-oriented on these issues, so that the American people can make an informed judgment about who to support, (and) so that whoever wins will have a mandate to act," Walker says. He's helpfully sent 21 sample questions by Federal Express to the debate moderators.
During Walker's stock presentation to a group of Dallas business executives Friday, Perot beamed as he was called "the king of charts and graphs," a reference to his innovative, 30-minute TV ads in 1992. The originals adorn hallways outside his office.
"He was clear, concise and compelling," Walker recalls. "We haven't had that in a long time, and we've got to have that in 2013."
Walker and other fiscal watchdogs credit Perot's 1992 campaign with putting the issue of government deficits and debt on the political map. To hear them tell it, his on-again, off-again campaign -- relaunched on Oct. 1 of that year -- helped produce a 1993 deficit-reduction agreement, the 1994 "Republican Revolution" that transformed Congress, and four years of budget surpluses.
"Washington was all abuzz in deficit reduction plans in the early and mid-90s. He popularized the issue and gave it voice," recalls Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a fiscal watchdog group created in 1992. Today there are many others, with names such as the Common Sense Coalition and The Can Kicks Back.
"It's kind of a chorus to do what Ross Perot did 20 years ago," says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "Ross Perot became the face of this issue. I also think it's powerful to have many faces bringing the issue to different constituencies."
At the time, Perot's plan called for raising taxes on income, gasoline and Social Security benefits. He wanted to cut defense by $40 billion more than Bush sought over five years and slash Medicare by twice that amount. Nary a sacred cow was spared -- particularly not the wealthy, who he said should pay more and get back less.
Not everyone was impressed. "He was kind of like a huckster or a medicine man or a guy throwing elixirs out the window -- and then he brought out his charts," recalls Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator and close Bush ally who says Perot cost the president re-election.
But it was a balanced plan, akin to many produced in recent years. Among them: the Bowles-Simpson plan, recommended by a presidential commission that Simpson co-chaired, as well as other bipartisan coalitions. All have gathered dust while Obama and congressional Republicans remain deadlocked.
"Our president blames Congress, Congress blames the president, the Democrats and Republicans blame each other. Nobody steps up to the plate and accepts responsibility for anything," Perot said -- in 1992. Reminded of those comments, he nods knowingly.
"It's like the guy who's drinking -- sooner or later, he's got to put a cork on the bottle, right?" Perot says. "You have to have the will to do it."
He has little patience for the argument that the 9/11 terrorist attacks, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the financial implosion of 2008 forced George W. Bush and Obama to dig the deficit hole deeper. Nor is he swayed by public opinion polls showing Americans less concerned about deficits and debt than the economy and jobs; only 4% rated it the most important issue in a CBS News/New York Times poll this month.
"If I told you I don't want to dig out of my debt problem until I go broke, you'd say, 'What are you talking about, Perot?' " he says. "You're not going to pay your debt if you don't have the money."
Third party to Tea Party
Perot's quixotic efforts in 1992 and in 1996, when he won 8% of the vote, didn't just expose how hard it is to cut deficits and debt. They also showed the difficulty of running effective third-party campaigns.
Others have tried and failed: George Wallace in 1968. John Anderson in 1980. Pat Buchanan in 1992. Ralph Nader from 1996 through 2008. This year, a group called Americans Elect laid the groundwork for a presidential campaign but couldn't find a suitable candidate.
Perot, more than most, resonated with Americans frustrated by Washington's paralysis. He created the group United We Stand to influence the debate in 1992. Later he formed the Reform Party and ran as its standard bearer in 1996.
It was a frustration that Newt Gingrich and other Republicans capitalized on in 1994, when their "Contract With America" borrowed much of Perot's platform.
"The function of third parties is to identify a set of issues that the major parties are ignoring," says Ronald Rapoport, professor of American politics at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. "Perot's legacy really was the Republican takeover in 1994."
Millions of Perot's supporters remained active in Republican politics for years thereafter, Rapoport and University of California-Davis political science professor Walter Stone found while researching a book on third parties.
"They can have a lasting effect on the two-party system even after they disappear," Stone says.
Perot's ability to get on 50 state ballots and catapult to the top of public opinion polls before succumbing to increased media and political scrutiny was all the more remarkable because it came early in the computer age his companies helped to advance. There were no Meetup groups like those that later fueled Democrat Howard Dean's 2004 presidential primary campaign. Facebook and Twitter were far in the future. Yet the consensus among political experts was that Perot won the first presidential debate in 1992.
Today, Perot is dubious about another successful third-party challenge.
"It's almost impossible to do it," he says. "It would be a very healthy thing if you could get it done and make it happen, but it's very difficult to do, and very few people would want to try. ... They know they're going to be butchered from day one for what they've done, and much of the media will participate actively in that."
Whether his influence extends all the way to the Tea Party movement that sprang up in 2009 is less conclusive. Perot's main issue was the deficit; the Tea Party focuses on cutting the size and influence of government.
Perot was surprised by the Tea Party's impact. "That's not the solution, but I think it was a healthy thing to happen," he says. "It wakes up everybody running for office, and hopefully a lot of American citizens."
And if the nation's political leaders and citizens finally do combine forces to tackle the fiscal train wreck -- perhaps even next year, as budget watchdogs hope — will Perot deserve some of the credit?
"That's a tough question to answer," Stone says, "We'd have to rerun history without Perot and see."