WASHINGTON -- The country can breathe a sigh of relief that it found out in time that Ross Perot is not a man to be counted on in the clutch. But it's too bad he didn't stick around long enough as a presidential candidate to have his proposed deficit-reduction plan tested in the fires of public opinion.
The solution cooked up for Perot by John P. White, a former Jimmy Carter budget aide, appears to be the kind of bold proposal that politicians say privately is really the only way to reduce and eventually eliminate the huge federal deficit -- but would be politically unsalable.
Although Perot had said repeatedly that he could balance the budget "without breaking a sweat," the White plan said it would take five years, relying on a combination of substantial defense and other spending cuts involving such sacred cows as Social Security and other entitlement programs, and tax increases. It was an invitation to controversy and special-interest assaults if ever there was one.
For years now, ever since Barry Goldwater talked about making Social Security voluntary and Ronald Reagan hinted about cuts in it, Democrats have clobbered the Republicans with the issue, putting fear in the hearts of elderly voters. And ever since 1984 Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale told the American people straight-out that he would raise taxes to cut the deficit and got snowed under, Republicans have raised the specter of Democratic tax increases in every election.
As a result, politicians in both parties have ducked making the hard choices, fearing the political price they would pay. Had Perot had the gumption to stay in the race this year and offer the gutsy economic proposals crafted for him, he might have forced major-party nominees Gov. Bill Clinton and President Bush to debate deficit reduction in a way now unlikely to be discussed.
It's assumed that Perot would have encountered a firestorm of criticism with his plan, which among other things called for a 50-cent-a-gallon gas tax boost over five years, limits on Social Security cost-of-living adjustments, home-mortgage deductions and business entertainment expense deductions. But such a budget proposal would have had the virtue of reinforcing Perot's image with his supporters as a straight shooter with the guts to fight for an unpopular but necessary solution.
The probability is that Perot would have been nibbled to pieces by critics adversely affected by the plan. At the same time, however, it is conceivable that the Perot army would have rallied around him and even increased in numbers as a result of his willingness to bite the bullet on the central problem impeding economic recovery and growth.
Now that the Perot plan has been leaked to the news media, it will get some discussion as a prod to Clinton and Bush. But without an active candidate putting his political survival on the line to get a serious hearing for it, it is going to be dismissed as politically impractical.
There has been some brave talk from Perot diehards to keep the "movement" alive, but in a presidential campaign, there is no substitute for a live candidate espousing his views every day across the length and breadth of the country. James Squires, Perot's campaign spokesman, told the New York Times that Perot "was more comfortable showing this plan to the country as a non-candidate than he could possibly be as a candidate." Maybe so, but who will pay much attention to him now?
One of the saddest aspects of Perot's shameless retreat is that the country will never know now how far the grass-roots phenomenon generated by one independent individual offering sensible if unpopular reform could have gone, in a year of such demonstrable voter dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Perot said repeatedly that he had no desire to be president but was willing to take the job as the public's "servant." By publicly embracing this bold plan and running on it, he could have performed a valuable public service, win or lose. Losing, though, was not in his game plan, and once he saw that he couldn't make much headway toward putting the country's economic house in order "without breaking a sweat," he picked up his marbles. Too bad he didn't have the stuff to wait a while longer.