A Mild Case for H. Ross Perot


April 30, 1992|By TRB

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- As a person and as a political phenomenon, H. Ross Perot is deplorable in many ways. Let us list some of them.

First, from a partisan perspective, Mr. Perot's candidacy surely will hurt Bill Clinton more than George Bush in the end. Mr. Clinton can only win by turning the election into a referendum on the incumbent, and Mr. Perot will be there to split the ''no'' vote.

Second, Mr. Perot's popularity illustrates either the decadence of the political system or the political immaturity of the electorate (take your pick). Whichever, it is pathetic that so many voters want to reach outside the system. Mr. Perot is the ultimate anti-politics candidate in a year when anti-politics is the most fatuous politics of all.

Then there is the related tiresome convention that anyone truly qualified to be president shouldn't want the job. Mr. Perot's ''I'll hTC run if you beg me'' approach is an update on the myth of Cincinnatus, the farmer who reluctantly lays down his plow to solve the mess in government.

Mr. Perot's candidacy is also the latest expression of the 1980s myth of the businessman as popular hero and savior. Lee Iacocca and Peter Ueberroth enjoyed earlier fantasy flights on the notion that what this country needs is a good CEO.

Indeed, if the Perot phenomenon has any recognizable political flavor, it's fascism. He was a tough but loving paterfamilias in his company, and he'll do the same for his country. He will sweep aside the dithering politicians to carry out the true will of the people. He will make the trains run on time.

Mr. Perot has the successful businessman's nearly demented self-confidence -- I can do brain surgery because I'm rich -- and the short man's strutting egomania. He has the revealing habit of incessantly quoting himself. As I was saying just the other day, that is a sure sign of an ego out of control. And yet he prides himself on his humility.

Finally, it is not a happy development that Mr. Perot is prepared to spend $100 million of his own money on his campaign. There are too many other people who wouldn't miss $100 million if it would get them on the cover of Newsweek. In ''The Theory of the Leisure Class,'' Thorstein Veblen movingly discussed the challenge to rich people of giving meaning to fortunes too large ++ to be appreciated in normal material terms. But better for the country if they stick to traditional solutions such as yachts and race horses.

All that said, though, I have a soft spot for Ross Perot. I've had it since I heard him give a speech on education reform in Texas. Mr. Perot headed a governor's commission on the subject. To my surprise, he delivered an eloquent plea for government spending and for redistribution on the basis of shared communal values. It wasn't fair, he said, and it wasn't good for Texas, that poor school districts had less money for education than rich ones. He made social spending sound like good business sense. He persuaded the state both to raise taxes and to shift expenditures from rich to poor. Quite a feat, in 1985.

Mr. Perot is accused of having no coherent set of political values. He himself asserts predictably, ''I hate labels. I'm an independent.'' And so on. And yet Mr. Perot's cafeteria-line choices don't seem so incoherent to me. Or at least, they disconcertingly resemble my own.

Above all, Mr. Perot is the only presidential candidate who is emphasizing the most important issue. That is the deficit, broadly defined to mean our general failure to invest in the future as well as the federal budget gap itself. Mr. Perot is not completely honest about the cure. He babbles about ''waste and abuse'' like a pro. But he is more forthright than his rivals in calling for curbs on entitlement payments to the affluent and for an end to the military subsidy of Europe and Japan.

Mr. Perot is pro-choice on abortion, live-and-let-live on gay rights and other lifestyle issues, pro-gun-control. He opposed the Persian Gulf war but supports aid to the former Soviet Union. He thinks that growing income inequality is socially unhealthy and favors a heavier tax burden on the rich like himself. He is obviously ''pro-business,'' but whether this means a belief in free markets or some corporate-statist vision of government subsidies and protectionism is not clear.

This set of views may be less ideologically coherent than those of Karl Marx or Milton Friedman. But they do not suffer much in that respect compared to George Bush or Bill Clinton. I detect no gaping inconsistencies.

Nor does it seem fair to charge Mr. Perot with vagueness. It's true he has not prepared 18-point position papers. And his popularity clearly benefits from a fairy-godmother syndrome: the hope that someone will come along with a magic wand and wave away all our problems. But Mr. Perot himself has been slightly better than Mr. Clinton and miles ahead of Mr. Bush in conveying the essential message of no gain without pain.

I wouldn't vote for Ross Perot over Bill Clinton. But I'd vote for him in two seconds over George Bush. And if I lived in a state where Mr. Perot could win but Clinton couldn't, I'd vote strategically. Others will vote for Mr. Perot in the spirit of, ''Let's take a flier. What have we got to lose?'' That's a sentiment deserving of sympathy, if not total respect.

TRB is a column of The New Republic magazine, written by Michael Kinsley.

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