Washington.--That imperious "welfare" billionaire Ross Perot got his presidential nomination from the "volunteers" that he mostly bought and paid for.
There was a time when this would have frightened me, because this arrogant little man who got rich at the federal trough is not God's greatest gift to democracy. He is a thin-skinned tyrant who is given to hiring spies to probe into the lives of his associates, his opponents and even his children. The free press is something he tolerates only when it can be manipulated to his ends. He says that between now and election day he "will not spend one minute answering questions that are not directly relevant to the issues that concern the American people."
Yet Mr. Perot is not as fearsome as he was when he was running neck-and-neck with President Bush and Governor Clinton. The latest CNN/USA Today poll shows only 7 per cent of voters supporting the Texas tycoon, with 35 per cent backing Mr. Bush and 52 per cent Mr. Clinton. It is obvious that Mr. Perot will not win the election; that he will not produce an electoral deadlock and throw the election into the House of Representatives, and that he might not change the electoral outcome in any state -- not even Texas or Florida.
So what's the Perot show all about?
There is speculation that he will force Messrs. Bush and Clinton to consider seriously the Perot formula for wiping out the $4 trillion national debt and restoring American economic health. I confess that there is a little of Mr. Perot in me in that I believe that if Americans reject all pain we can never gain against annual budget deficits approaching $350 billion. But Mr. Perot brings a zealotry for austerity and sacrifice that goes beyond anything I can imagine the American people accepting in these hard times.
Can Mr. Perot get the other candidates to endorse his proposal to raise gasoline taxes 50 cents a gallon over five years? The Edsel will become the best-selling car in America before that happens.
Will Mr. Clinton or Mr. Bush embrace the Texan's proposal to tax 85 per cent of Social Security benefits for individuals earning $25,000 or more, or couples earning at least $32,000? That is political bravery that is not manifested by any candidate who thinks he can win.
Mr. Perot thinks it makes sense to limit mortgage-interest deductions to interest on only the first $250,000 of a loan. So do I. But this involves messing around with a cherished deduction for the affluent, who have political clout and make cash donations to candidates. It could be fun to watch Messrs. Bush and Clinton squirm over this idea.
Mr. Perot may get help in his proposal to double taxes on cigarettes, and for cutting military spending some $40 billion more than the president desires. The other candidates could join him in asking for deep cuts in tax deductions for entertainment by businesses, for slashing federal spending on the arts, mass transit and other programs. But there will be powerful opposition to Mr. Perot's call for up to a 4-point increase in the tax rate on the 4 per cent of Americans who have the highest incomes.
Millions of middle-class Americans already have rejected Mr. Perot as their savior precisely because he has provided some specifics, which call for a lot of middle-class sacrifices. People struggling to feed, shelter and educate a family don't listen much to a billionaire who tells them "It'll only hurt for a little while."
Mr. Perot will nettle both Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton; he may reveal the depth to which Americans have become soft and unwilling to pay for the myriad things they demand from government. But he will mostly be talk-show entertainment.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.