Whatever Americans think of Perot the messenger, they should pay close heed to his message. His first 30-minute paid telecast on the decline of the American economy was a harsh, no-nonsense lecture, the likes of which few voters have ever heard. If he follows up Friday night by offering his promised solutions, he will be dispensing pain pills so bitter they will make Paul Tsongas, Warren Rudman and other Jeremiahs seem mere candy men.
Using pie charts, graphs and amateurish home-video techniques, Ross Perot risked boring millions of viewers waiting Tuesday night for the first game of the baseball playoffs. But his style was so different from the slick offerings of the major parties that it may have caught public attention.
This does not mean Mr. Perot is a credible presidential candidate, which he is not. It does not mean those who believe in his program have much sympathy with his autocratic ways. The latest polls show three in four Americans think Mr. Perot should not be running and almost as many concur with him that the economy is a mess.
Yet if the billionaire Texan uses the opportunities afforded by his great wealth to help awaken his compatriots to the dangers inherent in a national debt running out of control, his foray onto the political scene may be justified. Unlike Republican George Bush or Democrat Bill Clinton, he is willing to advocate a 50-cent increase in gasoline taxes over the next five years, a tougher cap in mortgage interest tax deductions, increased taxation of Social Security benefits, higher co-payment requirements on Medicare and taxes on the health care insurance workers receive from their employers. In all, he would boost taxes by $348 billion and slash spending by $413 billion over the next half decade, a budget-balancing drive that could turn the current recession into a prolonged depression.
If the Perot plan is taken as a two-by-four to the head rather than a lethal dose of austerity, it is a welcome addition to the national dialogue -- one that has much in common with rising demands for drastic changes in the way Republican presidents and Democratic Congresses have managed the country. Much will depend on his role in coming debates. Mr. Perot would be most useful if he goads President Bush and Governor Clinton into frank discussion of the economy without, however, forcing them to make statements that would inhibit their freedom of action once the election is over. The next president must be in position to crack down on the rising cost of social entitlements and reinforce the government's riddled revenue base.
While Mr. Perot did not mention Mr. Bush by name, his TV critique was a devastating indictment of the trickle-down, supply-side economics of the past 12 years. Such policies have quadrupled the national debt, made children the poorest cohort in the population, increased the disparity between rich and poor and undercut the U.S. position in world markets. Voters should tune in Friday night and for the Sunday night three-way debate.