WASHINGTON — Washington.-- It's getting interesting. The new Time/CNN survey has Ross Perot running first at 33 percent. George Bush gets 28 percent and Bill Clinton 24 percent. It's serious. An independent has never run first in the polls. Since George Washington, America has never had a president unaffiliated with a major political party.
Now, what follows, is neither an endorsement, nor a prediction, nor a self-pre-emption of future criticism. But as a designated yea-sayer, I offer herewith some reasons to say some yea:
Mr. Perot has already been of benefit. There is a belief that the American political system is unresponsive. That view is dead wrong, but potentially pernicious.
The glory of American democracy is that it gives citizens a sense that they control their own destiny. When people don't feel that way, they sometimes do revolting things, like revolt, which can cause inflation, potholes and dead people.
Today, like it or not, appropriate or not, Americans are steaming mad at government. Without a non-major party candidate on the ballot, like Mr. Perot, Americans would keep grousing, saying that the system is frozen, that no one ever listens to us, etc., etc. This is healthier.
What about his policies, once announced? I expect they will emerge as moderately conservative by current definition, but that they will not be expressed as ''liberal,'' ''conservative,'' ''right'' or ''left.'' Mr. Perot will say he is restoring American values, which is just what the doctor ordered.
His ideas about ''consensus'' are interesting. It's not that politicians in Washington don't seek it. It's just hard to reach. If, in order to get elected, you take support from unions or business, from pro-choice or pro-life groups, from pro- or anti-gun control, it then becomes difficult to ''break your word'' and compromise. Mr. Perot will claim that he could reach accords because he is not pre-locked.
Consider appointments: It is said that ''personnel is policy.'' Traditional candidates may well pledge to ''appoint the best people in America'' to top federal jobs. But it's difficult. The folks in your party, who helped you get elected, will ask you to appoint good old Joe, or Doris, or Harry.
Alas, some of these people are turkeys. The case against Mr. Clinton will end up being, ''Well, he may be all right, but won't he have to appoint all those tired liberal Democrats?'' President Bush has already shown his hand: With a few fine exceptions, he has appointed the most boring people in America. Mr. Perot, in theory, would have a somewhat free hand to choose the best, if he can figure out who they are.
That's only important. There is something grander that a Perot victory might accomplish, inadvertently. To sense this consider a riddle. Question: Is the American government a mess? Answer: You bet, terrible, gridlock, nothing happens. Question: Is America the most successful nation in history? Answer: You bet, absolutely, No. 1, the most opportunity, the most freedom.
So, then, how important is government effectiveness to NTC American success? I think the answer to that is: mildly. On a 1-to-10 scale, I'd rank it 4. Yet, to our detriment, we think about it, write about it, burn up energy about it and obsess about it endlessly, as if it were a 9.
At the end of a Perot first term, one of two outcomes would be likely. Either everything will be super, no deficit, no potholes, no poverty, and we will say hooray, we fixed the government. Or, more likely (such being the human condition), we will still have problems of governance, and we would have exhausted all logical political remedies: Democrats, Republicans and independents.
Yet America would still be the world's most successful country. Our individualist society would still produce Nobel Prize-winning scientists, world-class entertainment, highly productive farmers, energetic businessmen, innovative products, bubbling ideas and vigorous arguments.
That would let us relearn, to our benefit, that what makes this country good or bad, great or mediocre, is not our leaders, not Mr. Bush, not Mr. Clinton, not Mr. Perot, but us.
Ben Wattenberg is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.