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Suppose for a moment that Ross Perot weren't a spy enthusiast, a guy whose fascination with undercover work -- as both perpetrator and self-styled victim -- didn't scare the bejabbers out of ordinary people.

Suppose, too, that his novelty appeal hadn't vanished as soon as he did his disappearing act last summer, forcing him to jump-start a near-dead campaign.

In short, suppose he'd had the guts to stay in the presidential race all along -- and wasn't an autocrat made a shade more colorful by paranoia.

Given that script, where would he be now, five days before the election?

A good guess is: right where he is anyway -- in third place in a two-man race.

While the Texas billionaire plays out the string to keep the word "quitter" off his tombstone, it's worth pondering his real mistake, which had nothing to do with his many quirky character flaws. The real reason he never had a chance is simple: He appeals to an electorate that doesn't exist.

Perot's favorite three words are still "the American people," as if there were such a thing. As if this were some homogeneous society groomed in the ways of the common good, rather than a collection of individualists bred to believe competition and self-interest will magically produce utopia.

His pablum of "shared sacrifice" conveniently ignores the dividing lines that should prompt anyone to ponder the identity of these Americans he thinks are so ready to join hands. Who are these people?

Are they the white males who go to court to fight for jobs during the hard times he would make temporarily worse? Or are they the minority and female applicants who get those jobs through affirmative action programs designed to redress past wrongs?

Are they the laborers and farmers who fear a free trade pact will send them to the poorhouse? Or are they the high-tech producers and workers eager to send more sophisticated products to a new Mexican market?

Are they the relatively well-off, who fear the long-term impact of mounting budget deficits and can weather the sacrifice needed to turn things around? Or are they the low-income survivors who can't afford to take the long view -- or a 50-cent gas tax -- because they're too worried about putting food on the table and clothing their children today?

It's simply naive to pretend that all of these "American people" are ready to rally around a 10-gallon hat out of some belief in a principle higher than immediate and readily apparent self-interest.

That notion never really got punctured the first time around because Perot dropped out before the debate was really joined. By the time he came back, his two opponents -- both of whom know better -- were in a race by themselves.

Now, in trying to grab their coattails and pull himself back into the fray, the professional anti-politician has learned better, too. He's avoided any specifics that might alienate anyone. He's turned his latest infomercials into testimonials -- the only thing missing was Lawrence Welk music in the background -- and followed that by using his first campaign stops to talk about "character" issues.

It's a realistic concession to the fact that his call to spread the pain by hitting everyone sounds good only in theory. But as with everything that involves disparate interests, the devil is in the details.

That's why Perot is revealingly short on details. Want to solve a national problem, like expanding the job base? He'll convene a task force to review the "great plans lying all over Washington that nobody ever executes." Nobody ever executed them for a very simple reason: There was no consensus on the details.

The hard truth is that the governmental gridlock he rails against springs from everyday life. As long as we are a nation divided by race, income, gender and countless other distinctions, "gridlock" is just another name for representative government.

Sure, we periodically overcome the barriers. But only in narrowly tailored, half-hearted attempts like a watered-down civil rights bill, or a doomed urban enterprise bill so overloaded with tax breaks to please everyone that it does more harm than good.

Most often, the only time we really come close to rising above such dividing lines are in times of imminent peril. Wars and natural disasters come to mind. For a country in which half the people don't vote and sitcoms dominate the TV ratings, viewing the deficit in such cataclysmic terms is still asking too much.

Perot, with his cornpone common sense, helped push some people in that direction. Some current and former members of Congress are trying now, too. But the battle against deficit spending will be a long educational process, like the battle against eating too much fat. "The American people" are not quick studies, and one campaign season is not nearly enough time.

So forget, for a moment, that Ross Perot is the ultimate bad messenger. We might as well be honest: We're not really ready for the message.

ROD WATSON is a News editorial writer.

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