THE signs are growing that Texas businessman H. Ross Perot will jump into the presidential arena this spring. Mr. Perot says he will run for the White House if a petition drive by volunteers succeeds in putting his name on the ballot in all 50 states. The grass-roots signature gatherers seem to be building steam.
Perot's background and manner have populist appeal. Born in modest circumstances, the Naval Academy graduate is a self-made billionaire. Perot has been active in public causes, such as reforming Texas schools and the postal service. He's got can-do drive and a common-sense style.
On policy, he defies labels. He says he would take radical steps to shrink the federal deficit, and he favors trade barriers to protect American jobs. Pro-military but opposed to Desert Storm. Pro-choice on abortion.
Perot's popularity stems less from his platform, though, than from his reputation as a no-nonsense executive who gets results, his image as an outsider, and his penchant for prescribing easy solutions to hard problems.
It's being said that Perot is tapping into the same voter anger and impatience that have fueled the insurgent candidacies of Jerry Brown and Pat Buchanan. But Perot is even further outside the political culture.
Brown and Buchanan, for all their anti-system railing, are politicians. They respect politics. They understand that politics is not just about policy, or even power. Besides governance, politics - certainly presidential politics - is about the authentication of national values and identity. It's about how we define ourselves as a people. And because there are many different views of our values and identity, and many different interests to be served, politics is about balancing, compromise, and consensus- building.
Does Ross Perot understand this concept of politics, and its implications for governance? The president of the United States is more than the CEO of the nation. Top-down management of the sort Perot favors gets a president only so far in Washington. Another Annapolis grad with a technocrat's zeal for problem solving and distaste for political give-and-take - Jimmy Carter - had a crippled presidency, in large part owing to his inability to work with Congress or build grass-roots constituencies for his pol icies.
In this season of disillusionment, many Americans seem to be searching for a gifted amateur, a person whose political innocence is paradoxically a qualification for political leadership. Maybe such a leader exists. But until we know more about him, Ross Perot is politically a pig in a poke.