WASHINGTON -- The politicians packed into the East Room of the White House gave former President Jimmy Carter a standing ovation the other day when he excoriated Ross Perot on the issue of the North American Free Trade Agreement. But neither President Clinton nor any prominent figure in the Democratic Party has been willing to do the same.
It is obvious, of course, that because he is out of politics Carter has nothing to fear from Perot and his supporters. Thus, he could feel free to call the Texas billionaire "a demagogue who has unlimited financial resources and who is extremely careless with the truth, who is preying on the fears and the uncertainties of the American public."
But what should be equally obvious is that the president and his political allies are more afraid of Perot than they should be. On the contrary, there is a strong case that can be made for Clinton confronting his tormentor, if he has the nerve.
For one thing, the notion that the 19 percent of the voters who supported Perot in the presidential campaign last year make up some monolithic political entity is nonsense. By definition these are independent voters unlikely to move en masse in any direction. Moreover, opinion polls consistently have shown that many of those who supported Perot for president last year disagreed with him on important issues. They were attracted to Perot because he expressed their frustration with the inadequacies of government, not because he had some magical prescription for curing those ills.
But so far Perot has run his bizarre campaign against NAFTA without any fear of reprisal except a few wisecracks thrown in his direction by Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole and one tough attack from an obscure Senate back-bencher. Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi had the good sense to warn his fellow Republicans they should not take comfort in Perot's continuing assault on Clinton because it would be only a matter of time until he put the Republicans in his sights.
Billionaire Perot is not obliged to play by any of the usual rules of conventional politics. The television networks once again are falling all over themselves to put him on the screen, this time displaying photographs of Mexican workers living in cardboard shacks and suggesting that is what lies ahead for American workers if NAFTA becomes a reality. Perot claims there are 5.9 million American jobs at risk here -- a figure apparently plucked out of the haze somewhere -- but is still treated by the news media as a serious participant in the debate.
But if the networks are rolling over for Perot, their craven behavior is clearly being matched by the White House, although there are at least two sound reasons for Clinton to take him on directly and forcefully.
First, the president needs to challenge Perot on his "facts" and his argument against NAFTA simply because it is a strategy that may pay dividends in terms of support for the treaty among voters and, consequently, in the House of Representatives. A new opinion survey made for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found 36 percent oppose NAFTA, 25 percent support it and 34 percent say they don't yet have enough information to make a decision. In short, public opinion on NAFTA is yet to be crystallized. Better those who are undecided should get it from Clinton rather than Perot.
Secondly, Clinton needs to show that he has a hard edge somewhere in his makeup. He has gained a reputation within the political community and increasingly with the public as a leader who can be pushed around -- an image no president wants to reinforce.
On the contrary, more than anything else, Clinton needs to demonstrate in some way that he is tough enough for the job.
It was easy for him to fall into the habit of pussyfooting around Perot all through 1992, when the Texan was directing most of his fire at George Bush. The goal there was to avoid antagonizing Perot supporters so that if they left the independent, they might vote Democratic.
But it is now clear that Perot is going to attack any incumbent because he wants the presidency himself. He deserves to be treated as a political adversary, not just some yapping dog you can placate by scratching him behind his ears.