Gridlock as a campaign strategy: It could present an opportunity for Perot

March 20, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - The electorate apparently is going to be confronted with an unprecedented presidential campaign five months of back-and-forth from President Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole right here in Washington.

The conventional general-election campaign, in which candidates take their cases to the voters all over the country, will be largely delayed until after the two parties' nominating conventions in August.

In one sense, there is some value and a certain logic in a series of confrontations between the president and his opponent. At the least, this approach should define and clarify the differences between the two men on such immediate issues as the budget and welfare reform. But it also may be a prescription for alienating millions of voters.

The Republican strategy is to pass legislation carrying out the party agenda and forcing President Clinton into a series of vetoes Senator Dole then could cite as evidence that, for example, the president is not willing to go far enough on welfare reform.

But the Republicans don't have the votes to override those vetoes. So the outlook is for four or five months of gridlock. And if there was one lesson that could be drawn from the 1994 congressional elections, it was that voters were furious about the failures of the political process to deal effectively with national concerns.

If that same attitude is abroad in the electorate today and opinion polls suggest that it is then such a performance could significantly affect voter behavior. One obvious possibility is that many of them simply will decide it's not worthwhile to go to the polls at all, thus continuing the trend of declining turnout that was interrupted by the 1992 presidential election.

A second possibility is that several more months of continued stalemate in Washington could encourage turnout for an alternative candidate, specifically Ross Perot.

The independent Texan has been characteristically ambiguous about his own intentions, contending that the nominee of the new Reform Party will be chosen by a party convention late this summer and won't necessarily be Ross Perot.

The Reform Party has qualified for ballots in seven states and completed the requirements in two others. It is petitioning for ballot position in 21 others, and Russell Virney, executive director of the party, said he is ''confident we'll be on every ballot'' in the general election.

''Stand-in'' candidates

In some states, Mr. Virney said, the party has been obliged to file petitions for an independent candidacy to qualify for November. In those cases Mr. Perot is listed, Mr. Virney said, as ''a stand-in'' along with the names of two or more vice-presidential candidates. The stand-ins would be replaced after the party convention, which originally was scheduled for Labor Day weekend but may be moved up to allow the party to meet ballot deadlines.

The timing could be critical. If Messrs. Dole and Clinton spend the entire summer jousting with one another without result, it would be no surprise if Mr. Perot concluded that this was the ultimate proof that the politicians cannot cut the mustard and decided to run again. Although he might find it difficult to duplicate the 19 percent of the vote he achieved in 1992, current polls show him with 10 to 12 percent even as he waits on the sidelines.

Political professionals in both parties believe such a candidacy would hurt the Republicans far more than the Democrats by offering another outlet for anti-Clinton voters.

The notion that Senator Dole can defeat an incumbent president simply by ''exposing'' differences on issues such as welfare reform is probably mistaken anyway. Few voters rely on checklists of specific issues in deciding whom to support for president; instead, the decision most often reflects their judgments about the personal qualities of the candidates.

Senator Dole and Republican strategists recognize this reality. That is why their post-convention campaign will rely heavily on raising questions about the character of Mr. Clinton and how he compares with the Republican challenger.

But will the voters be paying any attention in September and October if Bob Dole and Bill Clinton spend the summer sniping at each other about politically shaped legislation and political vetoes? That is the kind of old politics Americans thought they rejected two years ago.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/20/96

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