A lot of people who should know better are talking about H. Ross Perot and the things he says rather than focusing attention on the critical issues ahead in this presidential year. That's amazing, even if Mr. Perot is one of the richest men in this country, because he's really a UFO candidate: pops up on the radar screen, blitzes by at high speed, then disappears when the interceptors scramble up for a look-see.
To begin with, being rich alone does not win elections. Or did Nelson Rockefeller really beat Dick Nixon in 1968?
Second, the business acumen, gutsiness and clarity of purpose that push a self-made man into the ranks of the millionaires are mostly wrong for the kind of decision making required in politics. The Ross Perot who made Electronic Data Systems an international success was a dinosaur in a cheese factory at General Motors. He knew lots about stomping around, roaring and gouging executive hides, but not much about making cheese, or for that matter, cars. So, after his spectacular failure at the politics of the boardroom, the GM brass paid him off and got rid of him.
Sure, Mr. Perot and his well-paid supporters will respond that he was right in many of his criticisms of the GM chairman, right about the way money was being wasted. Pay attention to the bottom line here, gang. That crowd in Detroit, for all its faults, knew a lot about making automobiles, an area in which H. Ross Perot was a first-class ignoramus. Being rich, even being right in some fundamental criticisms, couldn't rub out that basic fact.
So now that Mr. Perot has taken his contentious contempt away from their precincts, the GM crowd is back to making cars. One of their divisions, Cadillac, won a Baldridge Award for quality in manufacturing. Its latest marvel swept the auto-magazine awards and the enthusiast press compares it favorably to
Europe and Japan's best. Meanwhile, Ross Perot is somewhere off counting his money, plotting land deals and selling big woof tickets on the political circuit.
Third on the list is Mr. Perot's status as a third-party candidate. Right now, he's a non-candidate, but he's made it plain he expects to be one in the fall. Americans have flirted with third-party runs before, but they always turn back to the political mainstream.
There is a reason for that. It has to do with track records, with predictability, even accountability. Regular politicians grow up learning a lot about what is possible in a democratic society and how to get it done. Americans mythologize amateur status in government service, but no nation of 250 million could long survive without a cadre of professionals who know how to keep the wheels of government turning. That includes professional electioneers at least as much as it does the pros who spend careers in appointive office. Our admiration for the more regularized process by which Europeans train and raise politicians is a tacit acknowledgment of that, even if we still disparage our own at the same time.
So, like Teddy Roosevelt and his Bull Moose putsch, Mr. Perot will see that the closer people get to the voting booth, the less likely they are to pull his lever. The choice is very clear: government by a leader of a political party, with legions of state and local office holders as well as members of Congress pledged to work for his programs, or going with a near-unknown and his gang of political hired guns, with no identifiable record of public service or even public consciousness to his credit.
That point about hired guns needs amplifying. No elected leader, Democrat or Republican, of any stature is likely to sign on with Ross Perot, no matter how well he does in early opinion polls. That's because poll respondents are notoriously fickle. Grousing easy at mid-year, but in the fall the game gets serious.
And Mr. Perot's money will never be enough for all the city council races, statehouse battles, or down-and-dirty wars over Capitol Hill seats. And anyone who goes with the irregulars must face the wrath of the parties afterward, in those less widely covered but all-important local fights over patronage rights.
In the end, Mr. Perot, who after all does not pose many real solutions to the problems he's using for target practice, will be left as he is now, surrounded by lobbyists, hired political apparatchiks and former employees. None of them has anything to lose and some have much to gain if they succeed in weakening George Bush's right flank enough to jeopardize his chances against Bill Clinton. Then Mr. Bush would have to make a deal that put Mr. Perot and company into the driver's seat.
The burgeoning minority communities of this country would get nothing from that, of course, nor would the rest of the under- $150,000-a-year crowd. But they were never in the plan anyway.
Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.