Ross Perot's purse louder than his words ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- If anyone ever doubted the corrupting influence of money in American politics, the latest Ross Perot caper should be the ultimate answer.

Perot's ability to force both President Bush and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton to kowtow to him is clearly related to the fact that the Texas businessman has some $2 billion in his kick and threatens to spend large amounts of it on television advancing his political candidacy. Surely no one imagines the candidates would have dispatched their leading operatives -- and in the president's case, even the national security adviser -- to Dallas except for craven fear about what Perot might do in the final five weeks of the campaign. Surely no one imagines they would do the same for anyone else.

This is not a question of their being concerned about Perot stealing the election from them. Even Perot himself must recognize that is not possible anymore, if it ever was. Instead, it is a question of their recognizing his potential for doing them harm through his corps of "volunteers" and, more importantly, TV commercials if he becomes an active candidate.

Perot, continuing to play his little games, is allowing the tease to go on for a few more days. He will wait, he says, until his volunteers tell him what to do. What he doesn't explain is why he decided not to run in July when those volunteers were much greater in number and widely agreed that he should run.

The Texas billionaire justifies his games under the guise of wanting to foster a serious discussion of the issues. And he does deserve some credit for calling attention to the way both Bush and Clinton have been dancing around the question of how to reduce the federal deficit.

But it is also obvious from the defensive tone Perot has taken since he began marathon television appearances once again that he is also concerned about the damage he suffered to his own reputation when he bowed out in July. He didn't like being "the yellow Ross of Texas." And it is clear that he enjoys the ability to muscle the serious candidates into dancing to his tune.

They were probably mistaken to do so. Bush in particular might have made a valuable political point if he had told Perot -- publicly and bluntly -- that if he wanted to be briefed on the issues, he could come to campaign headquarters and pick up the white papers like anyone else. At least that would have avoided the televised spectacle of the chairman of his campaign, Robert Teeter, and the national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, uneasily making nice while the grinning Perot served as master of ceremonies.

Clinton's bowing and scraping was just as evident. But Bush, unlike Clinton, surely had nothing to lose by refusing to go along. If Perot does run, his candidacy has the greatest potential for doing damage to the president's prospects in their common home state of Texas, whose 32 electoral votes are essential to any Bush scenario. And Bush also knows that Perot is nursing some personal hostility toward him that he is likely to display between now and Nov. 3 whether or not Bush dances to his tune.

Perot justifies himself by claiming to be the candidate with "the answer" to the deficit. But the fact is that higher taxes right now would be poison in a time of economic weakness. And the fact is that the voters are prepared to reject anyone who wants to tinker with their Medicare and Social Security systems.

These radical ideas that Perot is advancing have been kicking around Washington ever since the deficit began to skyrocket under the stewardship of Ronald Reagan. There is no mystery about what needs to be done, only about how to accomplish it and survive politically. Perot has the luxury of popping off because he doesn't have to carry out his proposals.

Most importantly, he is being heard because he has all that money and all that potential to twist and bend the presidential campaign. He is not running for president. He is playing mind games that distort the system.

If he didn't have all that money, they would have told him long ago to take a hike. A presidential election campaign is a serious exercise for serious players, not an ego trip for capricious billionaires.

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