So H. Ross Perot is belatedly a candidate for president with only a month and a day until voters go to the polls. Barring the greatest turnaround in public sentiment in all the annals of politics, he stands no chance to win. At mid-year, the Texas billionaire was a real contender, often edging the two major-party candidates in three-way opinion heats. Now, according to the latest samplings, he is down to single digits, a hero mainly to volunteers who put him on the ballot in all 50 states despite their disappointment over his July withdrawal.
If Mr. Perot can't win, what is his purpose? Or better yet, what should be his purpose? He undoubtedly changes the dynamics of the race -- much to the detriment of Democrat Bill Clinton, whose lead over Republican George Bush in a two-man race is starting to assume landslide proportions. Does that mean he wants the incumbent president to win? Hardly. His personal and policy differences with Mr. Bush are legion.
Two other explanations come to mind. One is that he is on a colossal ego trip that only a very rich person can afford. Mr. Perot's self-indulgence, by that theory, mixes with popular frustration to produce a potent political potion. Or, to put the best face on his candidacy, he is so disgusted by the failure of the two major-party candidates to confront tough economic issues that he wants a national platform to put forward his own proposals.
In these columns, we have expressed some misgivings about Mr. Perot's antics and autocratic tendencies. But if he can force the elusive Messrs. Bush and Clinton to tell voters precisely how they intend to pay for their health care plans or if he can show how their arithmetic doesn't add up when they pretend to be serious about attacking federal deficits, his October entry may be worthwhile.
In his official announcement late yesterday, he said quite correctly that the government is a mess, gridlocked as it is between a Republican White House and a Democratic Congress. dTC This generation, he added, should not pass on a $4 trillion debt to our children; it should put its house in order.
His best-selling book, "United We Stand," presents a painful prescription for doing something about it: more than $750 billion in spending cuts or tax increases over the next five years, including a 50-cents a gallon tax on gasoline, taxing the Social Security benefits of the affluent as regular income, slashing government spending and eliminating tax breaks for special interests and the privileged. Some economists warn that this degree of austerity would tip the country over the cliff into depression. But others contend that after a few years of sacrifice, the country would emerge more prosperous.
Compared to the Bush and Clinton economic plans, the Perot approach is more honest and credible. It should be his mission, whatever the cost, to preach the harsh gospel of austerity. Indeed, his whole candidacy will be a mockery if he does not use this opportunity to awaken the nation to the threat of bankruptcy.