WHILE governors complain and congressional leaders dither, the Democratic Party is wending its way through the primaries to a convention coronation in July and certain defeat in November. Most rank-and-file Democrats have decided to ignore this bizarre process, which has produced losers four of the five times since it was concocted in 1972. These Democrats want a winner, and polls show many believe they see one coming. His name is Ross Perot.
For the record, Mr. Perot says he's an independent. By that he only means he has supported candidates of both parties. But his positions on specific issues -- abortion, gay rights, taxes, the deficit, free trade, America's role in the world -- make it clear that he's a Democrat. Granted, he's the kind of Democrat we haven't seen in a while, in the mold of Lyndon Johnson and Henry Jackson, but that's precisely the candidate the Democrats need and that their primary process never seems to be able to produce.
In fact, Ross Perot has the potential to be the Democrats' Ronald Reagan: the anti-establishment, pro-business candidate whose argument for an overhaul of the nation's agenda is made with great personal charm and an expert use of television.
A simple Reagan-Perot comparison ought to lead the Democratic National Committee to reconsider whether it wants to hold a convention at all:
A fixed theme. The pundits and press corps derided Mr. Reagan's simple message, and they snickered when they discovered he actually believed it. But where they saw a simpleton, the voters saw a man of conviction. Ross Perot has his message, too: It's that our government doesn't work, and the cost is about to turn us into a third-world nation. It's simple, it's straightforward and nobody doubts that Mr. Perot believes it passionately.
The commentators can harrumph about the lack of specifics or the danger of protest voting, but they harrumphed all during the spring and summer of 1980 (too old! bomb thrower! former
actor!), and nobody paid much attention. Ross Perot will continue to pound his point home. His opponents either have no point (Mr. Bush) or several hundred too many (Mr. Clinton).
Integrity. By Election Day there will be many people who do not like Ross Perot. He will have committed gaffes, been prickly with the press and annoyed millions with his well-sized ego. But there will be few people -- if any -- who don't believe Mr. Perot means what he says. A lot of people didn't like Ronald Reagan, but nobody doubted him. Meanwhile, Ross Perot's two opponents already have dangerously high negative ratings. The president reneged on his only major campaign promise of 1988, no new taxes. And Mr. Clinton has yet to answer the question Mr. Perot used to ask his employees: "Who can trust a man if his wife can't?"
Crossover voters. The famous Reagan Democrats are going to meet their match in the about-to-be-famous Perot Republicans -- basically conservative suburban voters who will vote for Mr. Perot in spite of many of his positions because they agree with his central theme. Mr. Clinton will pick up no Republican voters and probably few independents.
Mr. Bush may keep some Reagan Democrats because of his position on social issues, although the messenger here seems to belie the message. But he has already had a tough enough time hanging onto Republicans. Now comes Mr. Perot with a message that cuts through to professional Republican men who admire his business reputation and tough talk and to those Republican women who are pro-abortion.
A big state. One early poll is a thin reed for an election prediction, but the results of the recent Texas Poll (Mr. Perot 35 percent, Mr. Bush 30 percent, Mr. Clinton 20 percent) show how the battle lines are shaping up. Like Mr. Reagan, Ross Perot may enter the electoral fray in September with a big state already in his pocket. This is the good news for the rank-and-file Democrats who want to win but bad news for the convention that sticks with Bill Clinton. No Democrat has won the White House without carrying Texas since it entered the Union in 1846.
Mr. Clinton can run the best campaign in the history of American politics, but with two Texans on the ballot he doesn't have a prayer: The election is already lost. As for Mr. Perot, it allows him to concentrate on Florida, where his initial and strongest support has come from, and California, where elections are won with media, not organization, and where Mr. Bush has never been strong. This could take 111 electoral votes away from the president, give Mr. Clinton nothing and leave Mr. Perot free to start scavenging in states like Pennsylvania and Illinois. With a good showing in the West, Mr. Perot might have an easy shot at the magic 270 votes required to elect.
My question to Democratic leaders is: Why have a convention? You've already got a candidate. He looks fine. He supports your platform. Because he has the issue strategy, the integrity, the appeal and the electoral muscle of Ronald Reagan, he has a very good chance of winning. If he does, he'll change the national xTC agenda in your direction for a decade or more. To cap it off, he'll pay for the whole thing himself, saving the taxpayers the $56 million your losing candidate will cost.
So why haven't you embraced the guy with open arms? As we say in New York, what's the problem?
Wick Allison, a magazine publisher, is contributing editor to the National Review.