Perot: New Style Populist?


Texas tycoon H. Ross Perot has been elevated in public esteem by avoiding the dilapidated old platforms of the Republican and Democratic parties. If he goes through with his plans for an independent campaign for the presidency, Perot has a rare chance to forge a new political movement with those who think the established parties have failed the people.

In a peculiar way, Mr. Perot's candidacy has a distant echo in Texas politics. More than a hundred years ago, a group of angry farmers met in a hall in Lampasas County, Texas, and began to organize a political revolt that spread across the South and the Great Plains. By the 1892 election, the movement had grown into the People's Party, whose members, known as Populists, believed the Republican and Democratic parties were hopelessly corrupted by "the moneyed interests."

Mr. Perot is doing a masterful job at selling himself as a new style of populist, a man of humble origins who is rich enough to buy the White House on behalf of the people. If he were organizing a new political party, it is easy to imagine him reaching back in history and reviving the name "The People's Party."

But if Ross Perot were leading a new political party, what kind of party would it be?

So far, of course, Mr. Perot has not cast himself as a third-party candidate but as an independent leader -- a man capable of rising above partisan politics. His candidacy seems to suggest that party structures are becoming obsolete, that the two parties are tools of the special interests. The political life of the nation no longer takes place in ward meetings and town halls and political conventions, he is telling us; it centers around the family television.

The strategy has been a clever stroke on Mr. Perot's part. He is benefiting from a pox-on-both-houses sentiment, and he is drawing support from all points of the political spectrum. Nor is he constrained by a narrow set of policies drafted after endless meetings by a platform committee. He is free to call them as he sees them.

Yet there are natural and compelling reasons people join together in political parties. What possible reason is there to follow a leader if those who are following don't share the same goals among themselves -- or with their leader? To ask what sort party he would lead is another way of asking "What does he stand for?"

Those of us who have watched Mr. Perot dabble in Texas politics have seen him develop a non-partisan style that seems to win him trust he might not otherwise enjoy. He has maintained a working relationship with Republican and Democratic governors and has mediated relations between the state's business establishment, government leaders and other organized interests. In the 1980s he led two high-profile public committees -- one to study the war against drugs and one to reform public education. To both panels he brought a willingness to listen to all shades of opinion, to consider difficult measures, and to move decisively and effectively in getting proposals through the legislature.

It was hard not to be impressed by Mr. Perot's can-do salesmanship. I remember a Perot speech I heard as a reporter covering the state legislature in which he pleaded with lawmakers to recognize the importance of adequately funded schools. He spoke plainly and didn't get bogged down in policy details. "Anything you're worried about, I can show you a program to solve it," he told legislators, in a phrase he must have used hundreds of times in his long career of selling computer data services.

But having watched and listened to Mr. Perot, I don't buy for a moment the prevailing notion that he is beyond ideology or above partisan politics. He is not really as undefinable philosophically as he is made out to be. To understand him, we need only break out of our rigid view that an American political figure is either a Republican or a Democrat and that the distinction means much in the first place.

In reality, Mr. Perot is a "Republicrat" -- he is both Republican and Democrat. His political aims are not too far removed from those of the unsuccessful Democratic candidate Paul Tsongas, who described himself as a "pro-business liberal."

It's true that in Mr. Perot's history, he has been closer to the Republican party, forging alliances with the Nixon administration support of the Vietnam war, voting in the GOP primaries in Texas and even bankrolling an unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate in the 1990 Texas race. In some of his social views, such as on abortion, he is out of step with the Republican right wing, but so was George Bush before he became Ronald Reagan's running mate.

In Mr. Perot's recent rhetoric he sounds much like a Democrat, mostly because of his harsh criticism of President Bush. He is also not as wedded to free-market ideology as most Republicans, believing in a strong governmental role in economic affairs and a cooperative relationship between the business sector and policy-makers. In his economic views, he could easily be placed on the conservative wing of the modern Democratic Party.

There is one selling point, however, that Mr. Perot offers that sets him apart from Republicans and Democrats: He appears to be a candidate who can't be bought. No need for this homespun billionaire to round up PAC contributions from corporations or labor unions or the galaxy of special interest groups that control Washington.

The question now at the center of American politics is this: if both parties have let the people down and there is no third party on the horizon, can Ross Perot be trusted to return control of government to the ordinary folks who pay the bills?

To answer these questions, voters will have to look in coming months beyond the appealing, straight-shooting style of this super-salesman and find the substance of Mr. Perot's politics. They will have to ask what the Republicrat platform really is.

In truth, this is not a difficult task. Mr. Perot is not everything that he appears to be -- he is more the shrewd manipulator than the high-minded political outsider -- but at his core he is simply this: he is a wealthy businessman. He thinks like a businessman. And he looks at politics like a businessman.

There is, for starters, Mr. Perot's constant use of the business metaphors for government. He refers to citizens as the "owners" of the country. "Never forget that the United States government is the world's largest and most complex business," he said in a recent speech. The natural conclusion is that we need a shrewd and successful CEO in the White House.

But it's also clear that Mr. Perot is not your everyday CEO. He is not afraid to criticize the corporate establishment on the grounds of short-sighted management, bad economic decisions and outright greed. The blame for America's economic decline, in Mr. Perot's view, cannot be blamed entirely on "too much government," as Ronald Reagan used to argue. Having battled the bureaucracy of General Motors, Mr. Perot knows firsthand that corporate elites can be just as much a part of the problem.

Mr. Perot is part of the progressive-minded element of corporate America that recognizes the need for change. There is nothing that I can find in Mr. Perot's views that is inconsistent with the attitudes of the progressive corporate sector.

He looks at the nation's huge debt and sees that it is not in the long-term fiscal interests of the country. He sees government regulation as too often "adversarial" and not often supportive enough of corporate objectives. Yet he recognizes that the obsessive pursuit of maximum shareholder returns does not always lead to the kind of investment the country needs to be strong.

He argues, as many professors in our prestigious business schools have for years, that it is time to give up on strict free-market ideology and to copy the methods of Japan and Germany when it comes to industrial policies.

Most progressive business leaders see education as a vital element in preparing a work force that can adapt to the needs of a high-tech, high-skilled economy.

And like many other leaders of corporate America, Mr. Perot has little interest in the reactionary social agenda of Reagan-Bush-Quayle Republicans. Though he has attempted to be neither for nor against affirmative action, he sees racial divisiveness as interfering with the nation's teamwork and ability to get the job done.

In short, his vision is of a well-managed technocracy of productive citizens who will have no need to oppose big business if they feel well served by it. He yearns for what all executives pine after: unity of goals and strategy, greater control and, above all, greater efficiency.

The problem with the big business mind-set is that it is almost always opposed to more democratic participation -- too much participation at lower levels is not thought to be efficient. Mr. Perot's idea of linking the country in "electronic town meetings" is a revealing one.

He has been advocating the idea in the same simple form since the late 1960s. Has he thought seriously about it? He doesn't address questions about possibilities for manipulation, or about whether democracy can take place in front of a TV set in the privacy of one's living room.

A real town meeting is held in a big hall with everyone cast together and forced to debate and compromise and actively participate. It's messy. It's slow. It's inefficient. But the experience is as important as the end result. It's the whole point of the democratic experiment.

The Perot phenomenon may bespeak a public yearning for a benevolent autocrat and a modern American aversion to true democratic participation. And yet in the popular response to Mr. Perot's candidacy there are signs of hope. In turning toward a successful businessman, citizens are showing that they have not yet given up hope in the rational, competent management of public affairs. This is a clear break with the anti-government philosophy of the Reagan era.

The next logical step is for motivated citizens to realize that the whole point of the democratic experiment is to participate actively in politics. It may be that the populists of a hundred years ago had it right. If both parties are determined to serve as captive organizations of the vested interests, the Washington lobbyists, and the wealthy few, it may be time for a People's Party. But it's hard to imagine that the platform of an authentic populist party would much resemble the Republicrat vision offered so far by Ross Perot.

Dave Denison is a former editor of the Texas Observer, a #F bi-weekly journal of politics based in Austin. He now writes from Cambridge, Mass.

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