H. Ross Perot is a fellow Democrats hate to love -- but love him they do, even though his stunning withdrawal from the presidential campaign upstaged Bill Clinton's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention and scrambled the party's calculations for defeating President Bush.
Governor Clinton, his nomination in hand, immediately sought to capitalize on Mr. Perot's assertion that the Democratic Party had been "revitalized" by putting out the welcome mat to millions of Perot volunteers (Mr. Bush did the same). It didn't hurt that Mr. Perot stated a preference for having both Congress, where the Democrats are almost impregnable, and the White House under the control of the same party to break the current gridlock in Washington.
The collapse of the Perot candidacy, whatever its internal problems, demonstrated once again the holding power of the two-party system. This is just as well. Unless the Constitution is amended, a process with its own political pitfalls, any multi-party dividing up of the Electoral College vote carries with it the danger of throwing the election into the House of Representatives.
This has always been one of the main arguments against the Perot experiment, and yesterday the Texan trotted it out to explain his stunning withdrawal. He also noted that because the issue would be left hanging from November to January in event of an Electoral College deadlock, any administration would have difficulty organizing itself. Mr. Perot himself said the ultimate nightmare would be a Republican Senate, a Democratic House and an independent president.
Another reason for Mr. Perot's withdrawal yesterday was the disconnect between his imperious, top-down personal style and the hurly-burly nature of American politics. Upheaval within his staff and gaffes on the campaign trail caused a Perot drop in the polls from the mid-30s to the low 20s in only a month, mostly to the benefit of Governor Clinton, who leaves the convention with a 12-point lead over President Bush.
Among Democratic strategists, the Perot collapse must have come as a disappointment. They had figured that for every vote Governor Clinton was losing to the Texas billionaire businessman, President Bush was losing two. Especially in the South, where the Clinton-Gore ticket has home-turf appeal, Democratic operatives were counting on the Perot candidacy to split the Republican vote.
Yet counter-arguments could be made, especially the notion that Mr. Perot was denying the Democratic candidate huge numbers of supporters opposed to the status quo.
The instant Mr. Perot's decision was announced, Democratic bigwigs stressed the theme that Mr. Clinton is now the sole protest candidate (a notion mocked by Jerry Brown). But overall, they probably anticipate that Mr. Bush may be the main gainer since many conservatives are likely to return to the GOP banner, unless they opt out.
Not since Theodore Roosevelt bolted the Republican Party in 1912 has there been a third candidate with the potential displayed by Mr. Perot. TR lost his bid to return to the White House, but in the process took millions of votes away from the incumbent Republican president, William Howard Taft. Democrat Woodrow Wilson won that election, mostly on the strength of pluralities (not majorities) in 29 states. Some Democratic theorists were hoping against hope, until yesterday, that Mr. Perot would cause such lightning to strike twice. Now, Mr. Clinton must do it on his own.