Billionaire Perot may need to be cut down to bite size ON THE POLITICAL SCENE


WASHINGTON -- There are some obvious risks in the White House decision to allow Vice President Al Gore to meet Ross Perot in a debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement.

There are also less obvious but equally compelling reasons why this chancy change in policy toward the Texas billionaire could pay rich political dividends for President Clinton for the rest of his time in the White House.

Perot has been sniping at Clinton with increasing frequency and acidity ever since the election in which he compiled 19 percent of the vote as an independent -- at one point suggesting that the president was trying to go to war in Bosnia to divert attention from intractable domestic problems.

And over the entire year, the White House response has been timidity. Nor has Clinton been the only one pussyfooting around Perot.

Indeed, the only politicians from either party who have shown any willingness to take on Perot have been Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, who delivered a couple of his patented wisecracks at the Texan, and a backbench Republican senator, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who warned his party colleagues they should not take comfort in Perot's attacks on the Democratic administration.

So there is a sea change in administration strategy in challenging Perot to debate on NAFTA. The White House is now treating Perot as what he is -- another politician in an enemy camp with his own designs on the presidency. Or, put another way, President Clinton has recognized that anyone with $2 billion in his kick is serious trouble and needs to be confronted and defined before that money can be brought fully into play in another presidential campaign.

Perot continues to insist that he would prefer not to run again. But if he had the ego to run that independent campaign last time, why should anyone believe he wouldn't do so again next time?

Conventional politicians in both parties have always had trouble getting a handle on Perot. All through 1992, for example, political operatives and reporters kept wondering what might lie behind his bitter and personal attacks on President George Bush.

One theory was that on some forgotten occasion Bush had slighted his fellow Texan. Another held that Perot was still smarting because Bush as vice president had been given the job of turning down his help on the MIA issue.

But those notions went up in smoke when he began to attack Clinton with equal vehemence after the election. The logical inference is that he would attack any occupant of the White House because he wants the job himself.

But Clinton -- and almost everyone else in both parties -- avoided snapping back. The concern was obviously the fear of offending all those voters who had supported Perot in 1992 -- a fear that VTC overlooked the fact that, by definition, these were highly independent voters who would not be likely to move one way or the other en masse.

The risks in Gore debating Perot are clear to anyone who has watched the two men on television. The vice president may have an impressive command of the facts and figures, and the White House strategy is to hope he can expose the shallowness of Perot's arguments against the agreement. But Perot is a master at providing the kind of one-liner sound bite that is catnip for the television networks, from whose coverage most Americans probably would form their impression on how the debate worked out.

Over the long haul, however, the conventional politicians need to begin to treat Perot as they would treat any other political rival -- that is, as someone who needs to be forced to account for what he says and cut down to size when he is vulnerable.

Moreover, there have been signs in some opinion polls that many voters, including some Perot supporters, are experiencing growing doubts about the temperament of the independent from Texas. Thus, the context may be right for driving up the Perot negatives and forcing voters to look at him as a serious alternative to those in power.

The option could be much worse. Perot has the money to be a player both in the midterm campaign next year and in the presidential politics of 1996. But neither the Republicans nor Democrats can afford to have him essentially immune to criticism, however the vote over NAFTA turns out.

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