In the Ross Perot scheme of things, the greatest enemy is irrelevance. Worse than Democrats or Republicans is the danger of winding up a pest, a gadfly, a bore whose command of 19 percent of the American electorate suddenly goes poof in this Age of Whim. Everything this Texan phenomenon essays deserves to be seen in this context.
In his own words, he has been "sort of ducking and weaving and bobbing" since President Clinton revealed his economic program in mid-February -- this on the grounds that he lacks details. But we would submit there is a deeper, more political reason for Mr. Perot's strategy.
He dare not get too close to either major party lest he be gobbled up, pre-empted, turned into a spear-carrier. So he had some initial praise for the president's attack on the deficit, but since then has been gradually pulling away. As for Republicans, they continue to draw his contempt despite their efforts to identify with his program. Is this a good citizen's attempt to achieve reforms? Or a smart pol's drive to remain distinctive so he can run for president in 1996 or turn his legions loose against candidates in state and local elections?
Since both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are part of the Washington Establishment Mr. Perot loves to hate, some of their ire at the Texan's barrage spilled over when he went to Capitol Hill this week. Sen. Harry Reid, an obscure, mild-mannered, tax-hating conservative Democrat from Nevada, told Mr. Perot to get his facts straight after exposing an inaccuracy on one of the Texan's current one-liners -- his charge that no one on the Clinton White House team "ever created a job or built a business." Well, Senator Reid inquired, what about White House chief of staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, former chief executive officer of Arkla Inc., a Fortune 500 gas utility with 1992 operating revenues of $921.8 million? "Okay, fine, you've got one in the barrel," replied Mr. Perot in response to this unaccustomed challenge.
After he was also chided by such respectables as Republican Nancy Kassebaum and Democrat Lee Hamilton, Mr. Perot fled to the comforts of the Larry King show to pump up his latest enterprise -- a March 21 half-hour, prime-time, paid broadcast on NBC in which he will shill for new members in his United We Stand, America organization and ask for votes on issues via TV Guide ballots.
This broadcast is well timed, coming as it does shortly before the Democrats push through Congress a budget resolution incorporating President Clinton's economic plan. Annoying and worrisome as he is to the powers-that-be, Mr. Perot has to be taken seriously. Republicans are trying to piggyback on his fiscal conservatism in their inept struggle against the White House. Deficit hawks among the Democrats are not above using the Perot threat to push the White House toward more spending cuts. Deep down, both parties wish he would go to the farthest reaches of obscurity. But first, they have to cut the deficit.