GOP should pass on Perot's offer


Washington -- REMEMBER Ross Perot? Skinny bantam with barn-door ears, $8 haircut and a billion-dollar wallet?

Amazingly for a tycoon who was the Energizer Bunny of politics, Ross Perot has plunged off the 1994 radar screen.

The silence has been eerie, as though a kid next to you on the subway switched off a boombox.

Mr. Perot, who talked his way into 19 million votes, has clammed up like a stone Buddha. He's even been AWOL from CNN's "The Larry King Show," where he appeared as often as Larry's suspenders.

Could Mr. Perot be sulking? The last Perot sighting was on Mr. King's show when he debated vice-president Al Gore on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Al scored a clear KO. NAFTA won big.

PTC "We won't forget in November," Mr. Perot threatened congressfolk who voted against his wishes.

But Mr. Perot has gone into his Stealth mode. "It's like he's fallen off the face of the earth," said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "He's a total non-player in mid-term elections."

Well, Perotistas, dust off your "Ross '96" buttons. He's back. And baffling as ever.

As if health-care reform were not bewildering enough, Mr. Perot has thrown his hefty pocketbook into the donnybrook.

He was watching a couple of weeks ago when NBC did a two-hour news special on health care. It was supposedly neutral, but Hillary Clinton's impassioned aria for her husband's plan stole the show.

Mr. Perot sizzled. He knew the networks wouldn't sell him or his United We Stand, America, outfit air time. So he called Republican chairman Haley Barbour.

Mr. Perot: "I'd like to give Republicans a million dollars for a prime-time hour telling the truth about the Clinton health plan."

Mr. Barbour: "Gosh, thanks, Ross. I'll get back to you."

The Republicans are wary of Mr. Perot's offer.

After all, Mr. Perot spent much of 1992 raging against Republicans for dirty tricks, slander and trying to ruin his daughter's wedding. Mr. Perot's disdain for George Bush was epic. Many in the GOP blame Mr. Perot for Mr. Bush's defeat.

Before Mr. Perot came up with the $1 million offer, Mr. Barbour was saying, "If Perot wants to run [in 1996], he's our greatest threat to electing a Republican candidate."

So Mr. Perot's mad-money offer has Republicans in a moral swivet. Should they go in cahoots with this unpredictable, prickly hip-shooter who might cost them two presidential elections in a row?

Well, I doubt if they'll pay much attention to Common Cause director Fred Wertheimer's warning that Mr. Perot's offer of a million bucks is wrong. Nothing is unethical when the insurance cabal is spending 10 times that to kill Mr. Clinton's health plan.

L But Republicans have to wonder: What's Ross up to this time?

Here's one tip: Never discount the Perot ego.

The hunch here is that Mr. Perot is restless at being out of the electronic limelight. He's smarting from the NAFTA defeat. He'd exact revenge by piling on now that Mr. Clinton's health plan is in trouble.

Mr. Perot, who made some of his fortune computerizing data for a major health-insurance company, sees the Clinton plan as a bureaucratic nightmare. By opposing President Clinton, he's in tune with his United We Stand mavericks. In one poll, 76 percent of the Perotistas say they wouldn't vote for Mr. Clinton in 1996.

After a year of dissension among Perotistas -- one state defector charging "Perot wants us to be automatons" -- this is a way for Ross to rally his troops.

But it's a mistake for Republicans to sell a piece of themselves for a million bucks in a weird alliance with Mr. Perot, sure to backfire against them in 1996.

"They [Republicans] should use their own money," said ex-Perot adviser Ed Rollins. "Perot's irritated. But he'll run for president again because he won't want to tell supporters he doesn't have the guts."

For the Clinton White House, the prospect of a one-hour TV infomercial paid for by Mr. Perot is hardly devastating. With "Harry and Louise" ads bombing the Clinton plan, why worry about Ross?

In truth, despite the hard sell by Bill and Hillary, the Clinton plan -- or any health reform this year -- may be dead.

Blame it on the Clintons for dreaming up such a complex gizmo. Blame it on wrangling egos on Capitol Hill. Blame it on the public, confused by alliances and mandates, that's lost its passion for health reform.

If the Clintons want to pull out a miracle win, they should use the same strategy that won the NAFTA thriller.

Invite Ross Perot to go head-to-head with Al Gore on health reform in a prime-time debate.

L The guess here is that Mr. Gore would clean his clock again.

There is one certainty about Bet-a-Million Ross: He cannot stand silence.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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