I'VE GOT an idea for a modification to the North American Free Trade Agreement: We'll send Ross Perot to Mexico, and in return we'll give the Mexicans anything they want as the gift of a grateful nation.
After Tuesday's NAFTA debate with Vice President Al Gore, Mr. Perot's career as a pundit without portfolio -- and without specifics -- should be over for good.
During that 90 minutes, in a charmless version of his old cracker-barrel act, dogs didn't hunt, lines in the sand were drawn and the tooth fairy was mentioned twice.
"It'll only take a minute to kill this snake." "If you believe that, I got a lot of stuff in the attic I can sell you." You know. Ross Perot's easier to imitate than Jimmy Durante.
Mr. Perot had a purpose in American politics for a fleeting moment during the last presidential election. He said that the emperor had no clothes, that Washington was a hollow place that ran on incestuous connections among lobbyists, journalists, and elected and appointed officials.
While campaignspeak was filled with smoothie rhetoric, Mr. Perot's was filled with the kind of aphorisms you'd expect to find in a fortune cookie at a Tex-Mex restaurant.
But several things happened. One is that the choir learned the song. There's barely a person in America who doesn't suspect that Washington deal-making has as much to do with the public weal as a black widow spider has to do with romance.
(That common understanding doesn't mean an end to politics as usual: On the same day that Ross and Al did Yosemite Sam and Crusader Rabbit, Ed Rollins, who managed Christine Todd Whitman's successful race for governor of New Jersey, boasted to reporters that the campaign paid black ministers and Democratic regulars not to rally voters for Jim Florio. Wednesday he retracted the story, leaving Mrs. Whitman fuming, the ministers raging and the rest of us scratching our heads. If Rollins, who parted bitterly with Mr. Perot after briefly managing his on-again, off-again presidential race, ever wonders how the man could marshal so much support out of American disillusionment, he might just look in the mirror and wave a 10-dollar bill at his own reflection.)
Mr. Perot's allure evaporated, not only because people got the message, but because the messenger's act wore thin. And the act was all there was -- no action, just a stream of tetchy twang.
Ross Perot became the political equivalent of the person who says he could write your column without breaking a sweat. Problem is, he's never sat down at the typewriter. Mr. Perot doesn't have to deal with Congress or run the government -- he only runs his mouth.
I'm in sympathy with those members of Congress who haven't yet decided how to vote on NAFTA. It's fraught with ambiguity: could cost jobs in the short run, boost exports in the long run. But Americans hate ambiguity. That's why so many of them liked Ross Perot.
The president thought he was killing two birds with one stone with this debate -- win friends for NAFTA and reveal Mr. Perot as a crank. Mr. Perot, accustomed to appearing on "Larry King Live" as the centerpiece, was relegated to a place setting, and indeed it made him cranky.
He tried to replay portions of the presidential race he popped in and out of like a flea with two dogs. (See -- we could probably
even teach Al Gore to do this sort of thing.) He had his customary share of hyperbole: Is this really "the biggest lobbying effort in the history of our country"? He also misjudged his audience, talking about the oppressed working people of Mexico; if NAFTA fails, it will be because Americans think it will hurt the oppressed working people of the United States.
Usually columnists complain when a debate is lively that it's not substantive enough, or when it's substantive it's dull. This debate had the distinction of being neither.
If, as the vice president said, NAFTA is right up there with the Louisiana Purchase, people deserved to hear a whole lot more about both sides than they got on TV.
But the evening accomplished one thing: It insures that, from now on, no one need afford Mr. Perot a platform from which to air what pass as his opinions. He's been called a demagogue, a populist and a gadfly. What he is, is over.
Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.