Perot and Pirouette

DANIEL BERGER

June 20, 1992|By DANIEL BERGER

Ross Perot has two things going for him. The first is that he is "none of the above." He is everyone's protest vote, the heir to the Tsongas, Brown and Buchanan candidacies.

The second is a wonderful talent, matched only by Ronald Reagan in recent politics, for making things simple. His reassuring message is that there are easy answers. His most telling argument: "All you have to do is . . ."

It's what Americans are longing to hear. The answer to crime? A promise that "it won't be pretty," gets them cheering.

The conventional wisdom is that the Perot candidacy peaked at its beginning and can only go down. There are two reasons for this, each the reverse of what's going for him.

The first is that the "none of the above" luster would have gone to any outsider, particularly Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. But as the campaign goes on, the candidate's persona changes. When he actually threatens to become president, the first "n" drops off. He is "one of the above."

Since the man has no public record, scrutiny of his business affairs and back-room interventions in policy are in order.

This is likely to tear away the Perot-made myth of the pure entrepreneur to reveal the biggest profiteer of Medicare spending. Some of his past ideas for extracting POWs and hostages may make people pause before putting him in charge of things that blow up.

So far, Mr. Perot's relations with the press have been on his own terms. Pretty soon he has to submit to the same treatment every candidate gets. That will test his famous temper.

The second reason that his candidacy by rights should fail is that his lack of experience on issues will come out as he is forced to take positions. Discrepancies, contradictions, mistakes and insults will out. This is a man who has never faced an electorate, dealt with Congress, been constrained by the Constitution, studied federal fiscal policy, come to grips with Russia or planned a health program. "All you have to do is . . ." will soon pale.

So by all conventional thinking, the Perot juggernaut ought to peter out well before Labor Day. But a couple of caveats are in order.

Two people have something to say about this: George Bush and Bill Clinton. They put Ross Perot on top, and only they can knock him off.

Mr. Bush assumed himself to be popular and did too little about the recession. Big mistake. He is starting to look old and frustrated, unimpressive in the face of adversity.

Mr. Clinton looks like what the Democratic panjandrums always feared: not presidential. This is a mixture of biases about his youth, the nakedness of his ambition, his scratchy accent and the publicized character issue that he beat down in the primaries.

If Ross Perot is to be beaten, either Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton must do it. No one else can. So far they have been skittish, each hoping not to antagonize the Perot admirers, each counting on the other or the press or the neophyte's own self-destruction.

You would think that the mighty Bush dirt machine which did such an effective job on Michael Dukakis in 1988 and has been researching Bill Clinton all year would turn its sights on Mr. Perot. But there won't be a peep until the strategists feel they know where votes leaving Perot are headed.

So by rights, the Perot phenomenon ought to plummet, but don't count on it before you see it. Sometimes new things do happen, in politics as in everything else.

It is at least possible that the Perot bubble will not burst, that the comet will not implode, that the outsider will not trip on the foot in his mouth. Sometimes a horse with an early lead wins from the front.

There is a lot of hand-wringing that a Clinton third-place finish might send the Democratic Party in a downward spiral from which it would never return. Perhaps that could happen after a Bush-Perot-Clinton order of finish.

But a Perot presidency would do more harm to the Republican Party. It would leave the Democratic Party where it is, holding Congress and most state houses, the major party in the land. And deprive the Republican Party of its last bastion of power and patronage, the White House. Unless, of course, a victorious but partyless President Perot were to take over the Republican Party for his own.

One may speculate about how many more blacks, women and Republicans will be elected to Congress, but a certainty is that the Perot party will not capture Capitol Hill.

The best thing Ross Perot has going for him is a belief within the Bush and Clinton camps that he hurts the other. They could conspire to let him home free. If they don't beat him, no one will.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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