If Perot were serious, he would support others ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

March 23, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- There is an obvious strain of hypocrisy in Ross Perot's complaint about the influence of private money on public decisions in Washington -- particularly when Perot is making that complaint by spending $500,000 for a half-hour of network television time.

No one who knows how Washington works would argue with Perot's premise that lobbyists and their political action committees have too much influence on decisions made by the federal government. But the billionaire from Texas is trying to do the same thing and, because he has the assets to make it possible, gaining the kind of public exposure most Americans with a complaint cannot hope to achieve.

The difference, supporters of Perot would argue, is that lobbyists and PACs have a selfish interest in the decisions of Congress and the executive branch agencies with which they deal while Perot is representing "the owners" -- the term he uses to describe ordinary taxpayers for whom he is the self-appointed champion. Thus, the theory goes, Perot's interest is essentially altruistic rather than selfish. By this definition, his organization, United We Stand America, is just a different version of Common Cause.

But the truth is that Perot obviously wants to impose his ideas on the federal government and is using his money to apply a veneer of citizen support for those ideas. His "national referendum" on NBC was a joke as an exercise in public opinion.

Viewers were asked to vote "yes" or "no" on 17 questions, in every case questions where the obvious "right" answer was "yes." Who is going to say "no" to, for example, this question: "Should laws be passed to eliminate all possibilities of special interests giving huge sums of money to candidates?" And if any of the viewers were slow-witted enough not to know the right answer, the questions were tied in to Perot's own views on the same subjects.

Thus, it will be no surprise if the vote-counters find that several million Americans mailed in their ballots -- they were published in TV Guide -- and gave overwhelming support to Perot's agenda. And those results, in turn, will be seen as evidence of citizen demand for campaign finance reform, regulation of lobbyists, a balanced budget amendment, the line-item veto and the elimination of congressional perks.

But Perot was a presidential candidate last year, winning that stunning 19 percent of the popular vote, and there is sound reason to expect him to run again in 1996 despite his insistence that he doesn't want to do so. So one of the significant things about his little adventure on NBC is how many million new names he acquires for his computer from those who either respond to the referendum or send in $15 to join UWSA.

If Perot is to be judged as a political player, it is fair to look at what he is saying about the way the system works and what he would do about it. And the answer is not very much. He is supporting those old chestnuts like the balanced budget amendment and line-item veto, but most of his rhetoric is focused on the perfidious behavior of officeholders as a group and how it's time to "clean out the barn."

The implication is strong that we have elected some pretty bad actors who are doing a lousy job. But if Ross Perot finds President Clinton's economic program so lacking, where are his concrete proposals for changing it? How much and where would he cut the defense budget? If Clinton's attempt to reform the health-care system looks dicey, as Perot suggested, where is the alternative that will work?

Perot is doing just what he did during the presidential election campaign last year -- touching all the sore spots in the electorate and exploiting the good instincts of millions of Americans who would like to see the system work better than it does.

But his money means he cannot be ignored. The politicians watch him perform and read about the growth of UWSA and wonder if those people Perot is mobilizing can be built into a cohesive political force in gubernatorial, Senate and House elections as well as a presidential campaign.

That is the ultimate test. If Perot wants to influence American politics, he could put himself on the line supporting candidates or enlisting new ones. Otherwise, his campaign is just an ego trip that few other Americans could afford.

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