Perot: New Style Populist?

June 28, 1992|By DAVE DENISON

Texas tycoon H. Ross Perot has been elevated in public esteem by avoiding the dilapidated old platforms of the Republican and Democratic parties. If he goes through with his plans for an independent campaign for the presidency, Perot has a rare chance to forge a new political movement with those who think the established parties have failed the people.

In a peculiar way, Mr. Perot's candidacy has a distant echo in Texas politics. More than a hundred years ago, a group of angry farmers met in a hall in Lampasas County, Texas, and began to organize a political revolt that spread across the South and the Great Plains. By the 1892 election, the movement had grown into the People's Party, whose members, known as Populists, believed the Republican and Democratic parties were hopelessly corrupted by "the moneyed interests."

Mr. Perot is doing a masterful job at selling himself as a new style of populist, a man of humble origins who is rich enough to buy the White House on behalf of the people. If he were organizing a new political party, it is easy to imagine him reaching back in history and reviving the name "The People's Party."

But if Ross Perot were leading a new political party, what kind of party would it be?

So far, of course, Mr. Perot has not cast himself as a third-party candidate but as an independent leader -- a man capable of rising above partisan politics. His candidacy seems to suggest that party structures are becoming obsolete, that the two parties are tools of the special interests. The political life of the nation no longer takes place in ward meetings and town halls and political conventions, he is telling us; it centers around the family television.

The strategy has been a clever stroke on Mr. Perot's part. He is benefiting from a pox-on-both-houses sentiment, and he is drawing support from all points of the political spectrum. Nor is he constrained by a narrow set of policies drafted after endless meetings by a platform committee. He is free to call them as he sees them.

Yet there are natural and compelling reasons people join together in political parties. What possible reason is there to follow a leader if those who are following don't share the same goals among themselves -- or with their leader? To ask what sort party he would lead is another way of asking "What does he stand for?"

Those of us who have watched Mr. Perot dabble in Texas politics have seen him develop a non-partisan style that seems to win him trust he might not otherwise enjoy. He has maintained a working relationship with Republican and Democratic governors and has mediated relations between the state's business establishment, government leaders and other organized interests. In the 1980s he led two high-profile public committees -- one to study the war against drugs and one to reform public education. To both panels he brought a willingness to listen to all shades of opinion, to consider difficult measures, and to move decisively and effectively in getting proposals through the legislature.

It was hard not to be impressed by Mr. Perot's can-do salesmanship. I remember a Perot speech I heard as a reporter covering the state legislature in which he pleaded with lawmakers to recognize the importance of adequately funded schools. He spoke plainly and didn't get bogged down in policy details. "Anything you're worried about, I can show you a program to solve it," he told legislators, in a phrase he must have used hundreds of times in his long career of selling computer data services.

But having watched and listened to Mr. Perot, I don't buy for a moment the prevailing notion that he is beyond ideology or above partisan politics. He is not really as undefinable philosophically as he is made out to be. To understand him, we need only break out of our rigid view that an American political figure is either a Republican or a Democrat and that the distinction means much in the first place.

In reality, Mr. Perot is a "Republicrat" -- he is both Republican and Democrat. His political aims are not too far removed from those of the unsuccessful Democratic candidate Paul Tsongas, who described himself as a "pro-business liberal."

It's true that in Mr. Perot's history, he has been closer to the Republican party, forging alliances with the Nixon administration support of the Vietnam war, voting in the GOP primaries in Texas and even bankrolling an unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate in the 1990 Texas race. In some of his social views, such as on abortion, he is out of step with the Republican right wing, but so was George Bush before he became Ronald Reagan's running mate.

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