With the nomination in sight, Bob Dole is taking aim at President Clinton. But both had better watch their flanks. In a Mar. 8 Dallas interview with Washington Bureau Chief Lee Walczak and Political Correspondent Richard S. Dunham, independent gadfly Ross Perot pointedly refused to rule out another White House run.
Q: You have said that, rather than running for President again, you would prefer to find "another George Washington" to be the Reform Party's standard-bearer. How's the search for George II going?
A: If we found George Washington, the experts would say: "Forget it, he's not made for television." There are a lot of good people. This is like Field of Dreams. First you have to build it, and then they will come. We'll get [the party] on the ballot in June, then have the summer to attract people who will be outstanding Presidential candidates. And our primary will be different. Among other things, you will sign a document agreeing not to engage in dirty tricks or negative politics.
Q: What if Reform Party delegates decide to draft you? Could you refuse?
A: I'd probably be cut to pieces by the time we create the party. Our objective is to have a House, Senate, and White House working together as a team, rationally solving our country's problems as opposed to creating train wrecks and government shutdowns.
Q: You decry negativism in politics, but is political discourse today really so much coarser than in the past?
A: The process now is so demeaning that the best people are walking away from it. Colin Powell is a good example. So is [former Lazard Freres & Co. Managing Partner] Felix Rohatyn. He was willing to become vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve Board probably for 5% of what he makes on Wall Street. He got the signal that he was going to be chewed to pieces [by Republicans] in the confirmation process and decided, "Why the hell do I want to put up with this?" If we have a process so nasty that only people driven by power will touch it, then we get what we deserve.
Q: Why do you think so little attention is being paid to balancing the budget?
A: This is the time for free candy. This is the time for tax cuts. Just think for a minute: If the 1993 tax increase made sense, how can a tax cut make sense now? There is no free candy. A balanced-budget amendment is a must. The next part of the equation is a new tax system. Included in that is a provision that if Congress wants to raise taxes in the future they would have to take it to the people [for a referendum] in a national election. They better have some good reasons to raise taxes, right?
Q: Republicans thought the '96 campaign was going to be about the Contract With America, and instead it turned out to be about economic anxiety. Why?
A: Because it exists. The anxiety exists because the standard of living has been reduced for four out of five working people. Before the Revolution, every person in the U.S. paid 67.5 cents a year in taxes. Some 120 years later, it was $6.75. Then we passed the income-tax amendment in 1913, and in 1920 it had gone to $20. Today it's $5,700. But despite the fact that we've run up $5 trillion of debt, the standard of living has dropped.
Q: What is the Perot prescription for economic insecurity, then?
A: You've got to explain Social Security and Medicare to people. We have all these social programs. None of them work. Why? We never designed them. It's like we built a skyscraper with no blueprint. There were great dreams, noble causes, massive amounts of money--and underperformance. Our debt exceeds the amount of money in print. Isn't that interesting? Assets minus liabilities equals net worth. We have $20 trillion in assets, $22 trillion in liabilities, and a negative net worth. I think at this point Forrest Gump says: "Yep, we've got to redesign these programs."
Q: But isn't Bob Dole a veteran deficit-fighter?
A: He doesn't understand how to do it. [In Washington] they deal with problems as if they were islands. They work on the debt, on Social Security, on Medicare--all these are pieces of the puzzle that fit together.
Q: Is that why you criticized the GOP's big Medicare reductions?
A: They never had a plan for how they were going to make it work. It was supposed to cost $9 billion in 1990; that was the forecast in 1965. It cost $106 billion.
Q: Does President Clinton understand the problem?
A: He has a magnificent understanding of salesmanship.
Q: Surely you're not knocking salesmanship?
A: It should be principled salesmanship that produces results. If the President gets a second term, I think we will see the real Bill Clinton--a person who is very much in favor of big government.
Q: You feel you know the real Bill Clinton. Is there a real Bob Dole?
A: I think so, yes.
Q: What's he like?
A: I don't know. I've known him for a long time. I could tell you a lot of stories that are warm and sensitive about [Dole and] wounded veterans. He is a caring person--which you don't get the sense of. But I don't want to criticize the candidates. That's for others to do.
Q: Pat Buchanan supports most of your positions, from bashing free trade to campaign-finance reform. Why isn't he the Reform Party's favorite?
A: He has said he would not leave the Republican Party. And there is the fundamental question on which this nation rests: Who are we as a people? We are from different parts of the world, we're different colors, different religions. We must all work as a team. If you hate people, I don't want your vote.
Q: Steve Forbes is a businessman who's selling his entrepreneurial expertise to voters. Did he stealyour act?
A: No. People are sick of the two parties. So anybody that comes along that's an outsider gets initial attention, whether it's Powell or Forbes.
Q: Hasn't Forbes's candidacy at least shown the potential of the flat tax?
A: Flat tax, flat tax, flat tax--that's all you hear, right? "Growth, opportunity, and hope." Now then: Does it even work? Have we tested this thing?
Q: American business has come in for a stinging critique during this campaign. What's the message here for CEOs?
A: Heartbreaking angst exists across this country. And when politicians are trying to get votes, they play every tune they can get their hands on. CEOs understand that: "O.K., the politicians are going to have to punch us around a little bit to look like populists. But once they get in office, we own them--because we funded them."
Q: Can you see yourself making another Presidential run?
A: What I would love to do is buy a series of 30-minute programs and explain the issues. [But] the networks will not sell me time. I don't have to do this, I could just be having fun, right? But I am probably the luckiest guy alive. I have lived the American Dream. And the thought that we would punish this country to the point where some kid can't get out and hustle and make his dreams come true--I can't live with that.