Waiting for Perot

February 11, 1994

H. Ross Perot, at his first meeting with all the state directors and state chairs of United We Stand, America (UWSA) last weekend, said to the Washington political establishment, "[you] ain't seen nothing yet."

That's true -- in a sense that he surely didn't intend. His one attempt to directly affect a political outcome since the presidential election was one big nothing. That was his and his organization's effort to defeat the North American Free Trade Agreement. Congress probably would have passed NAFTA even Mr. Perot had stayed out of it, but his terrible performance in debating the issue with Vice President Al Gore on national television helped the pro-NAFTA side.

One failure does not doom a political movement, but Mr. Perot and UWSA have got to demonstrate their political clout if the organization is going to avoid the usual fate of third party movements -- which is irrelevance. Of course, many leaders of UWSA don't think of themselves as a political party. Indeed, its charter forbids it from endorsing candidates. One official of the organization says he prefers to think of it as "the League of Women Voters, with attitude." A bigger, tougher Common Cause of the right, so to speak.

If that is to be its role in political life, Mr. Perot will probably have to relinquish his commanding position. As long as the organization is dominated in the public's mind by his personality, UWSA will find it difficult to operate the way many of its members want to operate and to achieve the things he and it want to achieve: balanced budget amendment, line item veto, campaign and lobbying reform and term limits. Mr. Perot's willingness to initiate or to accept a diminution of his role is in question. If he is planning to run for president again in 1996, as an independent, or, as some nervous Republicans fear, as a Republican, he may feel he needs to do so as the very visible and very much in control leader of UWSA.

Some Republicans in Congress are also nervous about the possibility that third-party candidates not officially endorsed by UWSA but running on its issues eill attract enough moderate to conservative voters to drag Republican candidates below their Democratic opponents in 1994. That could happen, but so could such third-party candidates subvert Democratic incumbents in some districts and states. For many voters attracted to Mr. Perot and UWSA, incumbent members of Congress of both parties are equally unacceptable.

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