THERE'S understandable interest these days in gauging the true strength of Ross Perot's bid for the presidency. But, unfortunately for many politicians and analysts, the place they are inclined to look for answers - opinion polls - can't yet provide much useful information. Most Americans simply haven't thought about the Texan as a possible president. For the vast majority who tell pollsters they are inclined to vote for him, "Perot" means essentially, "I'm not satisfied."
How George Bush and Bill Clinton comport themselves over the five months remaining in Campaign '92, and how the economy performs, will obviously influence Ross Perot's ultimate strength. But the key factors are the quality of the American electorate, and of Perot himself. That is, when voters actually focus on Perot, will they, in significant numbers, find him worthy of the office?
History gives some clues. It shows, for example, that Americans set uniquely high standards for the presidency. It also gives pretty good guidance on where those standards lead.
Douglas MacArthur's aborted presidential bid is instructive. A 1951 Gallup poll asked: "What man that you have heard or read about, living today in any part of the world, do you admire the most?" The public put MacArthur first, Eisenhower second, Truman third, Churchill fourth, and Taft fifth.
It wasn't surprising that MacArthur and some of his admirers set sights on the Republican presidential nomination. But the boom went nowhere. In a January 1952 Gallop survey, just 14 percent of Republicans said they wanted MacArthur to be their party's nominee, while 33 percent picked Ike and 33 percent Taft. Even from this lowly beginning, his support went downhill: In April, only 10 percent of rank-and-file Republicans and 12 percent of independents favored MacArthur for the GOP nomination.
Much of the public decided that Douglas MacArthur, while a distinguished military leader and perhaps a great man, was unsuited to the demands of the presidency. They turned to another general, one less authoritarian in leadership style, more versed in the conciliation a diverse nation requires, as the next president.
Commentary on the characteristics of American voters disparages them, at least implicitly. They are portrayed as easily "conned," the kind of folks novelist Sinclair Lewis satirized in "It Can't Happen Here" - as willing to toss aside a century and a half of democratic government for the crude blandishments of Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, the "Chief." Or, in a more recent and nonfictional rendition, an electorate capable of being led to its 1988 presidential decision by a Willie Horton commercial.
In fact, history reveals an electorate that is mature, discerning, and demanding in presidential selection. This isn't to say, of course, that its views are always "right," that it never errs. But two centuries of experience show commitments to democratic governance that are both deep and informed.
This tangible experience, not wishful thinking, leaves me convinced that in its actual, "priced" decisions in the fall, American voters won't turn to a man as manifestly unsuited to the presidency as Ross Perot. The main events of his public life these last three decades - his management of the company he founded, Electronic Data Systems, his behavior on the General Motors board of directors, his interventions with regard to American MIAs in Vietnam, and the way he has conducted his campaign to date - sh ow him far removed in both ability and temperament from what the presidency requires.
Perot's leadership style in business was consistently authoritarian - not just by the standard of a democratic political system, but of business itself. He has been steadily inclined to oversimplify problems.
For example, General Motors, whose board he joined in 1984, unquestionably faced great challenges and required change. All Perot offered, however, were vague homilies, childish bluster, and showboating when he didn't get his way. His role with GM was almost entirely destructive, not constructive. It's a record that can readily be reviewed in detail - and it must be reviewed for all to see.
Similarly, in this campaign, gross simplification on how to deal with complexities like the federal deficit, bluster and petty intimidation with regard to the press, uninterest in conciliation, and distaste for democratic give-and-take characterize Perot's approach.
Americans are dissatisfied with aspects of the way their polity is being run, in some instances for very good reason. But nothing suggests they are suddenly inclined to turn away from their historic insistence that their presidents be committed and experienced democrats.