HAVRE de GRACE -- Now I certainly wouldn't presume to speak for the other 19,741,047 Americans who voted for Ross Perot in 1992, but it seems pretty clear to me that the Eary One won't be much of a factor this time around.
There are two main reasons for this. First, we've come to know Mr. Perot a little better over the past four years, and that's not been to his advantage. To know him better isn't to appreciate him more. He used to be a funny little billionaire with eccentric mannerisms and homespun, perfectly sensible ideas. Now he's become a gremlin figure, who spends his time peeking in the windows of the other candidates' campaign planes and making rude faces at them.
The other reason is more substantive. It has nothing to do with Mr. Perot himself, or with whatever it is he says he stands for. It has to do with us, the folks who voted for him.
Remember when Michael Weisskopf of the Washington Post wrote that evangelical Christians were a bunch of "easy to command" dim bulbs? They'd march over a cliff if their ayatollahs told them to, he implied. The Post got into deserved hot water over that one, but many of the current press descriptions of Perot voters are similarly condescending. He whistles, we come running. Right?
Sorry. My suspicion is that most of the 19,741,048 aren't the obedient proles the hot-shot political analysts think we are. We voted for the little guy in 1992 because of the unusual way that election took shape. And believe it or not, it hasn't escaped our attention that this election is different.
In 1992, the 18.9 percent of the electorate which voted for Ross Perot did so for a number of quite specific and not unsophisticated reasons. In general, we certainly didn't vote for him because we wanted him to be our president; if that had seemed a real possibility, many of us would have voted otherwise.
We knew Mr. Perot wasn't going to win, and we had a good idea that our votes for him would defeat George Bush and elect Bill Clinton. We didn't think much of Mr. Clinton, but his election seemed a distinctly lesser evil than allowing Mr. Bush to be rewarded for a performance in office we variously viewed as anywhere from limp to duplicitous.
George Bush reversed field on tax policy, and the Perot candidacy offered us an effective way to make the point that such reversals have a political price. When it tipped the outcome of the election, it made it plain that neither tax policy nor such a fundamental issue as the unchecked growth of the federal government could be safely ignored -- especially by other Republicans tempted to run right and vote left.
Thus Perot voters tended to feel vindicated -- even though most of us are Democrats -- by the Republican landslide in the Congressional elections two years later. And we appreciated Mr. Perot's considerable although surely unintentional role in zTC bringing this to pass.
But that doesn't give him any permanent claim on our loyalties. These have to be earned, and nothing Mr. Perot has done since 1992 suggests that we should vote for him again. Even though he's spent some $75 million advertising himself and his so-called Reform Party, he has even less of a program than he did the first time. And while he may wish to be a spoiler once again in this election, most of us don't see the need for one.
Some analysts, including Peter Hart, a pollster who serves primarily Democratic clients, are now suggesting that if Mr. Perot becomes a candidate he will hurt Mr. Clinton more than he hurts Bob Dole. This is based on the assertion that 60 percent of those who now call themselves Perot supporters are people who didn't vote for him in 1992, and who by a six to one margin say they would choose President Clinton over Senator Dole in a two-candidate race.
Looked at another way, of course, the Hart figures say that at least 40 percent of the folks who voted for Mr. Perot in '92 aren't with him any more. My own guess is that this figure is low, and that very few of us who were with him then are part of his constituency now.
As with all polls, obviously, whether the Hart numbers are accurate or wildly off-base can't be known. But the poll results are still of immediate tactical use to Democrats because they can be used to divert attention from one uncomfortable but obvious fact. If a healthy majority of those 19,471,048 '92 Perot voters should decide to go with Mr. Dole this fall, there will be a lot of loaded moving vans heading back to Arkansas not long after.
Mr. Dole's not a perfect candidate, especially for those of us who doubt his commitment to downsizing Washington. But perfect candidates are rare. Thus far in the young '96 political season, and considering the alternative, he seems a reasonable choice.
As for the Eary One, with his drawl and his millions, his much-touted campaign is beginning to make an odd but familiar noise. It's sort of a sucking sound. No wonder the candidate looks flushed.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.
Pub Date: 4/04/96