The fourth man

William Safire

August 24, 1993|By William Safire

London -- THE POLITICAL polls on both sides of the Atlantic may be accurate, but the judgment we draw from them is all wrong.

Here in Britain, we are assured that the popularity of Conservative John Major is the lowest of any prime minister since polling began. Yet people say, "He may not be much of a leader, but he's a good bloke."

Back home, we see Bill Clinton's popularity far below the average of presidents in their first year, with record-breaking negatives. Yet the underlying reaction is "he's all we've got so let's give him a chance."

Why the pervasive disenchantment with leaders too nice to loathe? And why do the figures mislead us into pluralistic ignorance, falsely suggesting mandatory weakness?

I think it has much to do with the three-party system.

Britain now has an established third party, the Liberal Democrats, polling about 25 percent, plonked down between a Labor Party now ahead with nearly half the electorate and Conservatives down to only a slight lead over the Lib-Dems.

But if a real election were held right now, the third party would likely drop, and the long-established Conservatives would take enough votes from Labor to make it a horse race. In other words, the perception, no matter how accurately polled, is not the reality.

Same thing in the States. The Democratic president is running neck-and-neck with a nameless Republican challenger, while the radical middle -- using Ross Perot as its vehicle -- is well up over 20 percent.

In both countries, the presence of a third party makes it seem that the incumbent leader is easily defeatable -- while the reality is that he is stronger than the perception.

At election time, third parties provide a haven for the disillusioned and the undisciplined -- but don't win.

What third parties do between elections is to make the elected leader appear weaker than he really is. That turns a mandate into a muddle and is not good for governing.

The British will have to shift for themselves; they seem to desire an era of dithering. But what can Americans do to prevent a third party from permanently weakening our stable two-party system between elections?

Let's face it: We have a third party in place, financed by Ross Perot, its ear tuned to great sucking sounds.

Nativism is its wellspring, populist revolt is its style, autocratic technocracy is its essence.

Though Perot may make a pass at the Republican nomination, he will likely wind up again a third-party candidate. With his money, motive and moxie, what can prevent him from becoming, in de Gaulle's words, a third force?

Answer: a fourth force.

Perot has demonstrated that $100 million plus a large dose of chutzpah buys you a place at the presidential starting gate. He has shown that name recognition can be gained virtually overnight; that call-in shows and talk shows can catapult a candidacy from the ridiculous to the menacing.

Is Perot the only person in America with a passion for politics, an urge to do good, a love of the limelight, a disdain for the traditional and a hundred million to spare? (You do not have to be a billionaire; all you need is $100 million for one campaign. If you go broke, it's while daring greatly, and you can get $6 million for your memoirs afterward.)

The solution to Perot is another, better Perot -- a forthright liberal with a mission to end unfairness, or a right-winger with a plan to end the deficit. A man (or wealthy woman) to capture the mavericks, satisfy the need for the new, and thereby split the radical middle.

But will not an eligible richie draw back for fear of the savage media? Here's how to beat us: Set forth all extramarital affairs, disgruntled business partners and other closet skeletons in the first news conference. Once it's out there, it ceases to be news. You'll come across as refreshing, not crooked or degenerate. Then you can run on your detailed ideas.

With a fourth force in the field, the two-party system could reassert itself, limiting debates to the two traditional candidates, letting the splinter voters splinter. And between elections, the winner could better govern.

Beats there no hard multimillionaire heart willing to strike this blow for liberty?

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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