In Pursuit of the Perot Vote

July 19, 1992

Americans who rallied to the banner of H. Ross Perot are entitled to sympathy, not only because they were taken by a Texas swashbuckler but because they now will be wooed by the Republican and Democratic Establishments they rebuffed in the first place. Their initial temptation, we suspect, is to say the hell with it and boycott the political process. This temptation should be resisted.

What was attractive about the Perot voters, despite their gullibility, was their desire to do something about a political system that needs a lot of fixing. Now, having been burned once, they should not quickly jump to George Bush or Bill Clinton. Perot adherents may indeed have been naive, but they instinctively knew something was wrong. They were wary of the Washington gridlock, the cozy interplay between a Republican White House and a Democratic Congress which Potomac politicians profess to hate but really love.

And so Perot supporters turned to a panacea-peddler who thought or pretended to think that running a good government was as "simple" as running a business he dominated utterly. What did in Mr. Perot was his misunderstanding of democracy -- of the unsimple way in which contending forces wind up in messy solutions that form the continuum of public life. That he could not handle a political campaign is a pretty good indication he could not have handled a government.

TC So the country is well rid of him and in better shape to assess what the two Establishment parties have to offer. Here is where the Perot voters fit in. As citizens who "won't take it any more" they are positioned to demand that the candidates deal with some issues they are only too happy to avoid. In New York last week, the nation heard much happy talk about a Democratic Party that is shucking the old liberalism that has lost elections and is now on a more centrist course. In Houston next month, Republicans will be prattling on about how well they will do in correcting their own mistakes.

In sorting out the babble, Perot voters (and all voters) should want some answers politicians are reluctant or unable to give. They should want to know just how mandatory entitlement programs will be brought under control before they run the country into ever more staggering debt. They should want to know how Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton propose to reconcile the competing demands of age groups that could wind up in generation conflict. They should get frank assessments about how the Cold War economy can be dismantled without turning recession into depression. They should ask how cities can be rebuilt and infrastructure repaired if Washington keeps mandating programs states and local subdivisions cannot afford. These and other core issues must be addressed.

Because the two-party system needs shock treatment, Perot voters can take comfort that they were agents of change even though their leader failed them. They have earned the right to demand more of the political Establishment.

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