Perot's Movement: Far From Forgotten

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DON'T be surprised if the next Webster's Dictionary contains a new word - "Perotism" - which will be defined as, "A new force in American politics which emerged in the 1992 presidential campaign under the leadership of Ross Perot."

How the dictionary will further describe "Perotism," I am not at all certain. But it undoubtedly will cite many of Mr. Perot's goals: ending gridlock in Washington, silencing the special interests, getting rid of the massive federal deficit, and providing jobs.

Certainly Perot's call for sacrifice, and his followers' willingness to accept it, will be mentioned. And also, of course, how he made a most impressive showing, with 19 million voters casting their ballots for this third-party candidate.

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History tells us that third-party movements are shortlived. But the vitality of Perotism was demonstrated when he came back from what most people (other than his own hard-core supporters) thought was his political demise: his departure from the race at the time of the Democratic convention.

Now, the "Perotites" will be keeping a close eye on Bill Clinton. They'll watch his new appointees and what they do. They will monitor his efforts to get the country going again. If the results don't please them, they'll be letting Perot know of their displeasure. And he'll probably respond by renewing his candidacy in 1996. He has already promised this.

Perot will undoubtedly give the new president a good deal of time to prove himself. He criticized Mr. Clinton during the final days of the campaign. But his main distaste was clearly for George Bush.

By entering the race, Perot delivered a blow to Mr. Bush from which the president never recovered. He exposed the president's vulnerability by bringing into the open the weakness of Bush's public support. Many of the president's former voters had become faint-hearted, willing to vote for someone else if an alternative to the Democratic nominee could be provided.

Even though polling information on the subject is unclear, my reading of the presidential contest is that Perot attracted many more voters whose second choice was Bush than those voters whose second choice was Clinton. Thus, it seems to me, those who voted for Perot helped to elect Clinton - though I believe now he would have won anyway since the winds of change were blowing in his favor.

I've talked to some Republicans who made the "painful" decision to vote for Perot instead of Bush. They cited their displeasure with some of Bush's appointments, with his position on abortion, and with his backing of tax-supported vouchers for parents to enable them to make a "free choice" of whatever school, public or private, they wanted their children to attend.

Most voters who had lost confidence in Bush were displeased with what they saw as a lack of the leadership necessary to pull the country out of its lengthy recession. But from what I have heard, this discontent would in the end have led to a tepid vote from them for Bush if Perot had not come on the scene. Actually, Clinton may be able to bring this powerful Perot movement to his side. Already he has its leader, a former Democrat, favorably disposed toward him personally.

If Clinton now takes steps that will end gridlocked government and bring about some of the Perot goals, then it is likely that the new president will make Clinton backers out of many of those who voted for Perot. By sticking close to Perot - bringing him in frequently to provide counsel - Clinton could well persuade his adversary of the 1992 campaign to sit out the next election.

But Clinton has made a lot of promises to groups and people, many of whom have an interest in continuing the style of government that Perot so vigorously disagrees with.

Also, what if the recession isn't entirely thrown off? Or what if programs initiated by Clinton cause prices and interest rates to soar? What if the gridlock persists? Then it seems likely that Ross Perot will be right in the thick of it once again, perhaps as early as the 1994 elections.

If Perot once again becomes a candidate, it will have to be as someone who is dissatisfied with the Clinton presidency. If that happens, the man who helped bring down President Bush could help bring down President Clinton too.

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