Future historians may look back on the 1992 elections and marvel that the only presidential hopefuls daring to talk truth about the impending bankruptcy of America pulled out of the race before they could make their full impact. Democrat Paul Tsongas and independent Ross Perot are still preaching, to be sure, but they are doing so not on the hustings where they had the riveted attention of the American people but through nascent grass roots movements of questionable effectiveness.
This is a shame. While neither was likely to win the White House, at different stages in this year's campaign they might have been able to force George Bush and Bill Clinton to address what Mr. Tsongas calls "that most politically toxic of all subjects: the exponential growth in recent years of government deficits." Even at this late date, Mr. Perot is hinting he may re-enter so the real candidates will "do the right thing" by confronting the $4 trillion national debt.
Mr. Tsongas, along with retiring Republican Sen. Warren Rudman, is organizing a "Concord Coalition" to rouse the citizenry. They want politicians to start "telling the truths" and facing "hard choices" and making "tough tradeoffs" and warning of "painful short-term sacrifice." Well, good luck.
What Mr. Tsongas and Mr. Rudman espouse [see Page 5H] sounds very much like the gospel of Ross Perot, who is insisting that President Bush and Governor Clinton come up with "hard plans" to deal with a severe economic crisis that he has likened to a "crazy aunt we keep down in the basement [because] nobody wants to talk about her."
Mr. Tsongas pulled out of the Democratic primaries while he was still drawing wide support for an austere message that was not supposed to sell. Perhaps he could not have headed off Mr. Clinton, but he could have used his national stage to bullhorn the warnings he is now sounding only from a megaphone. His was an opportunity missed.
The Tsongas phenomenon, however, helped prepare for Mr. Perot's emergence as an independent candidate eager to upset a political system that nurtures irresponsible economics. But he muffed his message with simplistic assurances that eliminating deficits and putting the nation back on a sound economic course would be, well. . . simple. When he finally faced up to the measures needed to eliminate the runaway national debt, he pulled out and opted for his own citizens movement.
Again, we say, good luck. But in Mr. Perot's case there is still an opportunity to make a real difference. Latest polls indicate that, despite his much-jeered withdrawal, he still has the support of an astounding 16 percent of the voters. This is real crowbar leverage. He is on the ballot in all 50 states and may declare his candidacy again so he can go on national TV to demand that Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton face up to the real costs of the feel-good promises they are making.
This would be a service for the next president, whoever he is. He would then have more of a mandate for the excruciating economic moves that must be made to restore America.