WHEN Ross Perot quit he freed President Bush and Governo NotBush to avoid the subject, and they have since been avoiding it with zest. The subject, of course, is: "What's it going to take to haul the economy out of the pit?"
Mr. Perot decided the answer was, "Sacrifice." The word gives off noble vibration, but everybody knows that, after we enjoy the pleasure of being called to sacrifice, pain cometh swiftly to all but the canny and the well connected. That's why seasoned politicians handle sacrifice gingerly.
Thus after President Kennedy's splendid summons -- "Ask not what your country can do for you . . . " -- people who asked what they could do for their country discovered that accepting the benefits of substantial tax reductions would be sufficient.
As a businessman, Mr. Perot was probably aware of the advertising campaign for aspirin featuring the cry, "I haven't got time for the pain!" In any event, he concluded that the national demand for pain was too small to justify a $100-million campaign to sell it.
Well, talk about media furioso! (Or is it media furiosa?) He was roundly abused and accused of wimpishness and poltroonery. The assault was led by media people, who tend to be youngish, self-righteous, high-salaried and, to judge by their effusions against Mr. Perot, masochistic.
Their case against Mr. Perot was the patriot's against the shirker: a nation in desperate straits needed him and he had let it down. All right, but what now has become of this hunger for a candidate who trumpets the call to sacrifice in these critical times, if you will forgive the bromidic prose so essential, alas, to political journalism?
President Bush and Governor NotBush are getting away with the same wimpish poltroonery that incensed media parsons in the Perot affair. I scarcely dare mention their free pass on the pain issue for fear colleagues will say, "So what?" or, "They all do it," or some other media-talk equivalent of "Grow up."
Messrs. Bush and NotBush both concede the existence of economic distress, but neither suggests that getting out of it may require a bit of pain for you, me and the whole darn family. If the economic plight is so desperate that Mr. Perot failed a patriotic duty by abandoning his campaign, surely Messrs. Bush and NotBush are equally derelict since they act as if the plight is not plight enough to call for remedies stronger than aspirin.
("We know you haven't got time for the pain, folks, so just take two of these photo ops every day and don't worry until this silly election is out of the way.")
True, Governor NotBush has warned the over-$200,000 crowd that he will put them to the tax rack to dispel the multitrillion-dollar deficit. And President Bush says he will stop pork-barrel spending if Congress will just be reasonable, surrender its historic "power of the purse" and give him veto power over every item in the federal budget.
If the economy's plight is as dire as the Perot diagnosis suggested, the Bush-NotBush proposals amount to applying a mustard plaster to a ruptured appendix. I keep having this
fantasy of President Roosevelt on the radio for one of his "fireside chats," and he is telling us not to worry about sacrificing to meet the stupendous cost of raising mighty armies, because the Wehrmacht can readily be defeated by the Boy Scouts of America.
The charm of the present campaign's approach to economics, of course, is obvious: "Look, folks! No pain!" Except for the plutocratic minority, of course, who not only deserve to suffer for being plutocratic, but are also heavily lawyered, hence abler than most of us to confound the tax cops.
If President Bush and Governor NotBush are to get a free pass on the economic issue, they should at least be badgered to address a few aspects of our end-of-century predicament that are safer for politicians to discuss. There is, for instance, the vital question of the national morale and the agents destroying it.
I refer to implacable health forces that keep 250 million people in a constant listless state of terror and depression. Iron, for example. Causes heart attacks. That was last week's bulletin. Wake up, President Bush! Get with it, Governor NotBush! Psychic depression can kill too.
Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.