To Washington sophisticates, Ross Perot seems to be verging on self-parody, hawking memberships in his United We Stand America organization like Patsy Cline records and making his populist appeal before shrinking TV audiences. But don't be fooled by the put-downs: The political Establishment is deeply worried about the reformist fever Perot has unleashed. "The Perot phenomenon has demonstrated the frustration and anger about government's failures," says author David Osborne, father of the "reinventing government" movement.
No one is working harder to co-opt Perotism than President Clinton, who sees the 19 million Americans who voted for the feistiest little billionaire in Texas as a threat to his own reelection. So Clinton is bringing some key Perot ideas into the White House. The President is convening town meetings, setting up toll-free telephone hotlines for citizens to report government abuses, and making it possible for computer users to have an on-line dialogue with the White House.
On a more substantive level, Clinton hopes to win over Perot supporters with his new focus on attacking the federal deficit. He's also pushing reluctant Democratic congressional leaders for legislation that curbs lobbying abuses and overhauls campaign finance. In an obvious bow to the Perotnistas, Clinton has also ordered Vice-President Al Gore to head up a new attack on government waste.
Congress, the main target of Perot's ire, is taking protective action, too. The House has killed off four select committees and agreed to trim committee staffs a bit. And more significant changes may be coming. A new Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, headed by Senator David L. Boren (D-Okla.) and Representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) is studying sweeping changes in Congress's Byzantine system of perks and procedures.
Now, even bureaucrats are talking reform. On Mar. 22, the National Academy of Public Administration announced creation of the Alliance for Redesigning Government. It would be easy to sneer at the effort as just another self-serving study, except that the alliance is headed by Osborne and backed by a talented array of state and local officials. R. Scott Fosler, president of NAPA, thinks the result could be a wave of government restructuring that parallels the downsizing that has swept the business world. "That approach is coming to government," he predicts. "The old ways of doing things just don't work."
VENGEFUL VOTERS. Osborne gives Perot credit for sounding the alarm. The Texan, he says, is doing "a fairly good job of articulating the problem." But he criticizes Perot for being "short on solutions." Osborne believes there are plenty of innovative ideas in local government. But without some mechanism to share concepts, the reform drive remains "a movement without a central nervous system." Through newsletters, journals, and even a computer bulletin board, the alliance plans to encourage politicians in, say, Poughkeepsie, to try ideas that have proved successful in Tampa.
Neither Clinton nor Congress nor the bureaucrats would be scrambling were it not for the specter of Ross Perot's vengeful voters. But pleasing the temperamental Texan may be well-nigh impossible. Despite phone calls and stroking from Clinton, Perot has pronounced the President's deficit-cutting plan inadequate. And it is doubtful that Clinton's stab at campaign-finance reform, which is expected to spare many favored Democratic fund-raising techniques, will meet Perot's purity test. So for all the Establishment's exertions, come 1996, Clinton and his fellow pols are likely to face another run-in with Perot's torch-bearing hordes.