ROSS PEROT, the billionaire about to be presidential candidate, is poised to waste $100 million on an ego trip. His current popularity, reflected in polls that show him beating George Bush and Bill Clinton in some states and running second or a close third nationally, is nothing more or less than a voter temper tantrum magnified by news media that feed on themselves.
By November, Mr. Perot will be lucky to do as well as John Anderson,another third-party candidate, did in 1980. He will not be elected president, he will not throw the election into the House of Representatives and he will affect the outcome in November only if the Electoral College vote is close -- something that has not happened since 1976.
America in the 1990s has fallen victim to a series of self-perpetuating conversations. It usually starts with a poll that identifies someone or something. The media then talk it to death. After all that talk, the media take another poll and -- lo and behold -- even more people support or oppose the "phenomenon." This then, becomes a trend. It lasts until something happens to change the subject.
Several years ago, for instance, we went into a frenzy of concern over drug abuse. The president declared a war on it. We talked it to death and polled it to death. Eventually, it gave way to war and recession. Drugs crop up these days way down on the list of things we care about.
Mr. Perot has become an obsession in the last month during which we have been subjected to an average of three national polls per week. This is, after all, the silly season in politics. Americans are still mad; the semifinals in both parties are over and no one is crazy about the two candidates. (In 1980, Mr. Anderson reached 24 percent in the polls at this point in time amid voter dissatisfaction with the two major candidates -- Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.) Mr. Perot is the most recent in a series of candidates that you can be for if you want to blow off steam. Patrick Buchanan, Jerry Brown and Paul Tsongas preceded him.
Anger candidates do especially well when they are not yet candidates or when they don't campaign. This is because eventually the voters want to know "Wadda ya gonna do about it?" Big anger requires big solutions and these aren't easy to come by. Mr. Buchanan never could come up with an idea big enough to match the anger; Mr. Brown trotted out a big idea, the flat tax, and fell flat on his face.
Let's face it, if the political landscape was littered with easy, popular answers to our problems, politicians would have seized on them long ago. Mr. Perot may yet come up with a unique set of solutions, but so far he is a pro-choice candidate who wants to raise taxes on the rich -- just like most Democrats -- and he thinks we can't afford day care or family leave programs -- just like most Republicans.
People have this vague impression that Mr. Perot can be president because he can get things done. This impression is founded on his success in business, which offers little or no precedent for how he might do in government. Mr. Clinton went through the years of patient negotiation and compromise necessary to reform the education system of his state. President Bush put together an international alliance against Saddam Hussein with a skill that wowed even his enemies. Are there analogous accomplishments that Mr. Perot can point to? Probably not.
Mr. Perot will peak in the next few months and then begin a long slow slide into oblivion as the voters get down to business. In the meantime, all I can think of is that $100 million is an awful lot of money. It could provide abortions for poor women, it could be seed money for a lot of small entrepreneurs who can't get loans. One hundred million dollars can do a lot of good. Too bad it's about to be spent on an ego trip.
Elaine Ciulla Kamarck wrote this column for Newsday.