WASHINGTON. — Washington -- We're all having an excellent time snickering at Ross Perot: Mr. Tough Guy who ducked a fight, Mr. Take Charge who took a powder. But the joke may be on us.
Mr. Perot became convinced, apparently, that the economic plan he was about to reveal would never sell. He is probably right about that. It was a serious, honest proposal to deal with the federal budget deficit. His handlers were quite right to tell him that seriousness and honesty on that particular subject are a lethal combination.
Cancel the space station. Eliminate the Rural Electrification Administration. Cut the White House and congressional staff budgets by 30 percent. Cancel big-ticket defense items like the Sea Wolf submarine. Raise fees for mining and foresting on public lands. End the tobacco subsidy and slash away at other farm price supports.
Cut Social Security cost-of-living increases (exempting the poor) and fully tax benefits of wealthy retirees. Make Medicare beneficiaries cover a third of their doctor bills instead of a quarter. In all, Mr. Perot's plan called for $300 billion in entitlement cuts. Bill Clinton's plan calls for $4.4 billion.
Raise taxes on alcohol and tobacco. A 50-cent gasoline tax. End the interest deduction on mortgages over $200,000. Cut the business entertainment deduction. Invest the gas tax revenue in public infrastructure. Even so, Mr. Perot's plan would slash $700 billion and credibly balance the budget in five years. By comparison, Mr. Clinton proposes to halve the deficit in that period and President Bush's most recent budget proposal optimistically claims to achieve a deficit of $188 billion in 1997.
Mr. Perot's proposal isn't perfect. I could live without a lot of silly new investment tax breaks. But thanks to Ross Perot for sparing me a tough question. If you think that the overwhelming issue this nation faces is the way it is eating its seed corn, how could you not vote for the only candidate addressing that issue seriously?
Positions on issues are not the only consideration in choosing a president. Amorphous considerations like temperament obviously matter, and Mr. Perot had problems in these areas.
Yet such considerations have taken on an exaggerated importance because the most crucial issue has been taken off the table. The Democrats don't want to talk entitlements, so they talk autobiography. Republicans talk family values to avoid talking fiscal math.
Mr. Perot was hoist by his own handlers. All he got for hiring expensive professionals like Ed Rollins was leaks to their friends in the press that he was doomed for ignoring their advice.
Mr. Rollins wanted Mr. Perot to hire advertising man Hal Riney, author of feel-good commercials for Ronald Reagan, Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers and suchlike. Mr. Perot balked not only at the cost -- $100,000 per commercial -- but at the very idea of imagy, atmospheric commercials. He wanted his commercials to say what he actually planned to do.
Writing in Newsweek after Mr. Perot pulled out, Mr. Rollins claims the candidate had said to him at the start, ''OK . . . you guys know how to do this. I'm getting out of your way,'' then refused to get out of their way. No doubt Mr. Rollins had no such problem with Ronald Reagan. But what an absurd idea: that a candidate should get out of the way of his own campaign so that professionals can be unmolested in efforts to portray him as a non-politician and take-charge guy.
And what is wrong with reluctance to spend $100,000 on a campaign commercial? This is a man who wanted to balance the federal budget.
If I were Bill Clinton's adviser, I could not honestly recommend hTC honesty to him. The Republicans have done too good a job at making fiscal honesty impossible. Mr. Clinton's budget proposals are about as honest as he can be expected to get away with, and more honest than Mr. Bush's.
But if I were advising Ross Perot, I would have recommended honesty with a clean conscience. First, I would say, if anyone can get away with it, it's you. Second, I would say, why would you want to be elected without a mandate to do what you know needs doing? After all, you really aren't a politician like these other guys.
Ross Perot chickened out. In the end, he didn't have the guts to tell the voters what he knows is the truth. After all that peacock strutting, he deserves the mockery he's getting. But don't be too hard on the guy. Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton also know the truth and are afraid to say it. They have chickened out too.
TRB is a column in the New Republic by Michael Kinsley.