We've seen the last of Perot as a player in presidential politics

November 13, 1996|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- No election is all bad if Ross Perot gets his head handed to him.

Conditions seemed particularly ripe for an independent or third-party candidate in this election. Exit polls found more than half the voters admitting to reservations about the candidate for whom they were voting. But Mr. Perot still took only 8 percent of the vote, less than half what he received four years ago.

The issues also seemed tilted toward Mr. Perot, particularly late in the campaign. The accusations of a corrupting foreign influence in the fund-raising of the Democratic National Committee fit neatly with his long-standing assault on the

campaign finance system. Still he won only that 8 percent.

The only reasonable inference is that the voters finally got wise to the Texas billionaire. (Polls measure his negatives close to Gingrichian levels.)

That conclusion also can be drawn from the extraordinarily low turnout of 48.8 percent of those eligible to vote. The message in that figure was that Americans turned off by both President Clinton and Republican nominee Bob Dole stayed home rather than express their sentiment by voting for Mr. Perot.

His supporters may argue that he was doomed to also-ran stature when he was denied participation in the presidential debates. But he was left out of the debates because all the national polls showed him with the support of only 5 to 7 percent of the electorate.

Mr. Perot did accomplish something by establishing his Reform Party as a recognized political identity so that it qualified for federal matching funds and so that its place on ballots is assured in at least half the states in the next presidential election.

But his handling of that transformation from independent candidacy to third party probably helped to do him in by election day. He laid out a ''nominating process'' for the Reform Party that conned former Gov. Richard Lamm of Colorado into trying to compete for the nomination. In fact, the process was rigged for Mr. Perot. The Reform Party became simply another device he could use for an ego trip.

With his original candidacy in 1992, Mr. Perot performed a valuable function in forcing a focus on the federal deficit that the major-party candidates might just as happily have avoided. And no one who knows how Washington works would argue with his contention that lobbyists and their money have too much influence on the way things work.

Charts and big talk

But there is a difference between identifying problems in the system and providing practical solutions. Mr. Perot's analysis of the flaws was sound, but for all his charts and big talk, he never spelled out practical solutions. The whole thrust of his candidacy was that all the politicians in Washington were either corrupt, stupid or both.

But the harsh reality is that none of the fundamental problems in the system can be solved easily. If they could, does anyone imagine that nobody in Washington would take the necessary steps? Contrary to Mr. Perot's suggestions, many decent and capable people are in both parties.

His complaints struck a chord nonetheless. Voters have grown increasingly cynical about politicians over the last generation. They are told one year, for example, that reforming the health-care system is absolutely essential to the health of the economy. The next year, the politicians having been unable to find a solution on health care, the issue simply vanishes from the national agenda.

More is involved in being president, however, than touching the sore spots in the electorate and evoking a response. Voters seek someone to lead the country in a well-defined direction. Bob Dole's failure to offer such a road map is perhaps the main reason his campaign failed so badly even against an incumbent as flawed as Bill Clinton.

It is now apparent, as well, that voters looking for an alternative to the major-party candidates want something more than a public scold. Although he may not go gently into the night, Ross Perot is finished as a big player in presidential politics.

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

Pub Date: 11/13/96

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