Take the money and run Perot's third party: Is the time ripe? His followers think it is more than ripe.


THERE ARE NO second acts for third parties in America, but that may be about to change. This time a third party is going to be greatly subsidized by the federal government. Because Ross Perot got 19 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 presidential contest, he, as nominee of the movement now called the Reform Party, is entitled to $29.2 million from the Treasury. That is only half as much as the Democratic and Republican nominees will receive -- but it is hardly chicken feed.

If it is enough to get and keep a Perot candidacy up in the polls, he should be guaranteed a place in the Clinton-Dole debates. That seems to be his goal. His 1996 goal. His long-range goal is to end the two-party system. He made that point in Valley Forge Sunday night. He said, "Can we count on the two political parties? Can we count on the two political parties to solve these problems? They are the problem, right? Yeah." And, "Thank you for creating the Reform Party. It's a historic event."

Listening to Mr. Perot rail against politics as practiced by the Democrats and Republicans recalls an old joke conversation between the satirists "archy and mehitable" in the 1920s.

"Do you think the time is ripe for launching a third national political party?"

"It is more than ripe, it is rotten."

Mr. Perot and his most fervent followers make it perfectly clear that they think something is very rotten in Washington. Campaign finance, effective lobbying, excessive entitlements, inadequate taxation, too much immigration, too generous perks for officeholders, deficit financing, free trade. But most of all, too much spending.

The traditional outcome for third party platforms is for one or both major parties to adopt the best of the planks. That appeared to be about to happen after 1992, when a Democratic president and a Republican Congress both started paying lip BTC service to a balanced budget. But both parties ducked a true solution -- curbing entitlements.

Bob Dole underlined his lack of commitment to budget deficit reduction by becoming a born-again supply-sider in recent weeks. President Clinton is going to produce his own brand of tax cutting next week -- perhaps even to the point where deficit reduction will be left as an issue to Mr. Perot.

Ross Perot was good at describing the problem in 1992. He was not very good at offering convincing solutions. Perhaps the second time around, as a party leader not an independent candidate, he will do a better job.

Pub Date: 8/20/96

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