Washington.--As a politician, I always tip my hat to men who have influence when they are deserving of none. Politics is the art of power and, since power can only be retained by using it, some clever men realize it is available for the taking when those who should have it refuse to do anything with it.
In the last two weeks, Ross Perot, by insinuating himself into a race that had become dormant, laid claim to power available because of the ineptness of the two presidential contenders. Given the chance to convince Mr. Perot's 51 state coordinators that he should not re-enter the race, both campaigns embraced the opportunity, sending delegations of considerable status on this fool's errand.
To be seen so easily commanding the response of men who would have us believe that, in a crunch, they would think of the welfare of the country instead of their own political well-being, revealed much about the caliber of George Bush and Bill Clinton.
In effect, they told the rest of us that we should treat Mr. Perot more seriously than we might have otherwise. One aspect of power is to be able to tell others, presumed more powerful than ourselves, what to do -- and on this score both major candidates flunked a rather elementary test about the nature of the office they are seeking.
The last U.S. president who understood power was Richard M. Nixon. Faced with such a demand -- "invitations," such as the one extended by Mr. Perot, are, in fact, demands in the power game -- Mr. Nixon's refusal would have been instantaneous, regardless of whether he was ahead or behind. He knew that to be seen allowing others to control your actions renders you powerless and, while neither the people nor the press might immediately recognize this, others who would be doing business with you in the future would grasp the point. No president, or any potential president, should allow the office to be so compromised.
I was not surprised that President Bush did not see the situation properly. His poor political standing is a result of his failure to use his power to address the country's problems and he has consistently overreacted to his circumstances for the last year. If he loses, history will blame the economy but, in fact, it is his failure to do anything about it that will defeat him.
He missed an opportunity last week, however, to demonstrate that he finally understood his office. Had he refused to send a delegation to Dallas -- and simply said he would discuss the budget deficit with Mr. Perot should he enter the race -- some of us could at least imagine that he had learned something about power and, on this basis, might be deserving of a second chance of being president.
As for Governor Clinton, we are left to believe that, by electing him president, we can look forward to an administration remarkably similar to President Bush's: one where a president, with suspect credibility at the start, is seen bargaining away his power to special interests that he fears control his re-election.
Had neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Clinton cooperated, Mr. Perot's reappearance in the race would not have been taken seriously. Instead, they allowed him to stand preening as their campaigns bowed to his wishes and allowed themselves to be used in the rejuvenation of his reputation.
As for Mr. Perot, he has shown he understands power far better than the two men who tell us they should have it. However, he stands revealed as someone who knows nothing of politics and is unwilling to learn. He may feel that, with his name on all state ballots, the frustration of the vast majority will pour forth and elect him, because he knows about power and will use it in office instead of losing it.
But Americans have now discerned in Mr. Perot an arrogance that is not only unbecoming but cannot be rewarded with the presidency. The people will not elect Mr. Perot because they sense he has no loyalty. After all, he abruptly destroyed the hopes of millions of supporters, people he had encouraged to believe in him, by rising one day and, without consulting anyone, announcing he would not enter the race. He could thus easily ignore that he was president of all the people once in office. We admire men who know about power, but we have no respect for tyrants.
But, whoever wins this race, we have not heard the last of Ross Perot. He has established himself as a man of power and, whether Mr. Clinton or Mr. Bush is chosen to lead us, the president will have to wonder how Mr. Perot will react to what is being done. There is no greater power than forcing others to please you or suffer the consequences. We may find that Mr. Perot is more powerful than the president during the next four years.
John P. Sears, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.