Americans, according to Ross Perot's ex-campaign manager, are so angry at politicians that they have "disconnected with the process."
Tom Luce, the high-profile Texas lawyer who ran the original volunteer Perot effort this summer, maintains that Americans aren't apathetic as much as they are enraged at their leaders.
As he described the surprisingly massive outpouring of support Mr. Perot gained in a matter of months, Mr. Luce presented a plausible case for looking at this year's political developments in a positive, not a negative, vein.
He made his remarks recently before a group of professional skeptics at the National Conference of Editorial Writers in Lexington, Ky. He was dealing with a tough audience.
Mr. Luce believes the ground has now been laid for serious consideration of fundamental problems that have been ignored in the past by politicians and the public.
"The deficit is becoming an issue," he said. "It's on the radar screen and moving up. . . . People are making it an issue." That is due in large measure to Mr. Perot's stubborn insistence that it's the deficit, more than anything, that will drag this country down.
Still, not even Ross Perot has had the courage to hammer away at the solutions. He has, in fact, been nearly as evasive on this key point as George Bush and Bill Clinton. Mr. Luce was more polite the way he described it when he noted, "We're not yet focused on what to do."
But whoever is elected president on Nov. 3, and the hundred-plus fresh faces in Congress, will be under enormous pressure to zero in on this nation's out-of-control spending habits. Whether they will have the courage to do something about it is far less certain. These won't be popular decisions.
"We're down now to simply a matter of hard choices," Mr. Luce said. "We have to deal with the hard issues of military spending, health care spending and entitlements."
Each poses huge obstacles once you get into the specifics.
A sharper reduction in the Pentagon's budget sounds simple enough, until you look at the massive job losses in the private sector (such as the 1,400 layoffs at Westinghouse) that have followed the modest military downsizing now occurring. That situation would be exacerbated by gargantuan cuts in the Pentagon -- not to mention the problem of tens of thousands of ex-servicemen without jobs in this stagnant economy.
Cuts in health-care spending? Sounds great, until you realize that this could prove devastating for millions of elderly and the poor.
Cuts in entitlements? This is essential, since entitlements are growing at a rate of 18 percent a year. But try even mentioning the prospect of curbing cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security recipients or a means test, and the furor from the gray-power lobby will stop any politician in his or her tracks.
Yet Mr. Luce claims Congress and the president will be compelled to take unpopular steps to shrink the deficit because "the markets won't allow much spending without addressing the deficit."
In other words, all that Japanese and German money propping up the dollar by purchasing our debt financing will suddenly dry up unless Washington gets serious about trying to balance its books. A new binge of spending without the taxes to pay for it just won't be tolerated by our overseas partners.
So new taxes appear inevitable, like it or not. Even a new president and a new Congress won't be able to ignore that option. One intriguing suggestion: a value-added-tax, something that most European counties already impose. It would be immensely unpopular at first, but it would certainly help lower the deficit to less obscene levels.
Mr. Luce's optimism is refreshing, but I wonder if it is justified.
Maryland is fortunate that it has a pretty good bunch of congressional representatives. On the whole, they are conscientious, responsible and well-meaning. When they come to visit the editorial board room at this newspaper, they say the right things: Congress is in a mess, it's an appalling situation, they want no part of it.
And yet, what have they done about it? Precious little. They are part of the ruling class, and they're not likely to toss stink bombs into their own ballroom.
Perhaps Mr. Luce is right that extreme pressure from our foreign financial backers will force leaders to do the unpopular but necessary things -- eliminate government programs, cut entitlement benefits, raise taxes -- even if it means alienating farmers, the elderly, the well-to-do. But I don't believe it.
Until our new leaders in Washington prove otherwise, I remain a skeptic. As they say in Harry Truman's home state: "I'm from Missouri -- show me."
Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.