Just What Does Perot Stand For?

The electorate has made it clear in opinion-poll results that it doesn't think much of the probable Presidential candidates. In a CBS-New York Times survey on Apr. 27, only 35% of the respondents viewed President George Bush favorably, while 44% viewed him unfavorably. The leading Democratic contender, Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas, fared even worse, with a 26% favorable and 40% unfavorable rating. In contrast, respondents viewed potential write-in candidate H. Ross Perot favorably by a margin of more than two to one.

Voters seem to be saying that they want more change than either party is prepared to give them. As has often been observed, politics serves narrow, organized interests very well and everyone else very badly. Moreover, both parties remain committed to the 20th century's romance with Big Government. Is Perot the leader who will be able to enact broad, sweeping reforms and curtail the size and power of government?

If he really is that leader, he needs to define himself before the media do it for him. Already, The New York Times is running headlines that make him virtually indistinguishable from other candidates: "Wealthy Should Pay More To Trim Deficit, Perot Says." If he really thinks the deficit is the problem and that taxing the rich can solve it, Perot adds nothing to our alternatives.

PEOPLE POWER? Perot says he will lay out his program by midsummer, but he doesn't have that long. By then, the media will have made of him what they will. Moreover, it is not credible to expect a grass-roots effort to put him on the ballot in 50 states--when people don't know where he plans to take them and how he intends to get them there. His promise of "action, action, action" is not only skimpy but also unencumbered by any details: He has not even identified which track he wants "to get this country back on."

Perot can coast a limited distance on the public's attitude that anyone would be better than Bush or Clinton, but after that he has to go to work and produce a checklist that differentiates him from the official candidates. When he criticizes government for its inefficiency, does he mean it needs a problem-solver to take its management in hand or an ax-wielder to prune it radically? The distinction is important. One approach continues with things as they are, and the other increases private empowerment and responsibility.

Perot's problem-solving rhetoric suggests that he doesn't understand the problem. Budget Director Richard G. Darman can "get everyone in the same room" in order to solve problems--only it's their problems and not ours that get solved. One politician needs to project a smaller deficit, another needs more pork for his constituency, and they work it out over a tax increase.

On the other hand, Perot does seem to favor referendums and initiatives, measures that would strip Washington, and perhaps the courts, of power expropriated from the people. A President backed with people power doesn't have to worry about getting along with Congress, lobbyists, and the bureaucracy. If this is what Perot has in mind, he should tell us, because it is a revolutionary's way of dealing with corrupt government. Considering the mood of the electorate, it would give his candidacy a tremendous boost.

SUCCESS QUOTIENT. On economic policy, he needs to make it clear whether he is just another national industrial meddler like Felix Rohatyn or a champion of the opportunity society that allowed him to become rich. If he doesn't appreciate his own success, he won't mind curtailing success for the rest of us. When he calls for "fairness in taxation," it matters a great deal whether he means allowing success to reap its reward or forcing the successful to shoulder the burdens imposed by organized lobbies in the name of fairness. He has nothing new to offer if he is simply another guilt-ridden rich man who will raise taxes on above-average incomes in order to help the deserving.

Perot should tell us how he intends to control government spending. When he says, "someone like me doesn't need medicare," it implies he thinks he can balance the budget by cutting the wealthiest Americans off the entitlement list.

Perot could make himself a real candidate by defining the characteristics of a successful society, specifying where we fall short and identifying the measures he would implement to raise our success quotient. If he backs an economic growth agenda instead of more redistribution and calls for a scaled-down government and not simply a better-managed one, he could be the first write-in candidate to become President.

When the history of the 20th century comes to be written, it will be the story of how the growth of government crowded out private life, and even the family itself. This process, however, is now in reverse in Sweden, France, Britain, Eastern Europe, the republics of the dissolved Soviet Union, Latin America, and even in China. If Perot's candidacy is for real, he will tell us that we must be part of this historic transformation and not become the world's reactionary.

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