AMERICA'S new political phenom, H. Ross Perot, has spent $600,000 on an undeclared candidacy for president. The Texas billionaire is expected to announce his candidacy in June - forcing Bill Clinton and George Bush to rethink their campaigns. If Perot wins four big states he could throw the election into the House of Representatives for the first time since 1824.
Perot benefits from being a noncandidate - attacking other contenders at will, while ignoring questions about himself. "I'll get back to you" is his operative answer, though Perot is now huddling with newly hired advisers to decide what his positions are.
That Perot is running for office before he knows what he believes is a bit unsettling. He needs to get serious as a candidate. As riots in Los Angeles, deficits, economic doldrums, voter anger, and an unstable world order suggest, 1992 is not a year to be taken lightly.
Two areas need attention.
First, a pattern of stories emerging about him.
Perot talks as an outsider but his fortune was made through federal contracts and much insider influence. How much? Perot says his son was the main beneficiary of a lucrative contract for a Forth Worth airport, which the Texan pulled federal strings to build; the son says Perot senior was. Which is it? National Archives documents indicate Perot wanted to contribute $50 million in public relations to help former President Richard Nixon sell his Vietnam policy. Perot denies it. Are the papers wrong?
A reputable Forth Worth publisher says Perot tried to silence a 1989 story by threatening to release racy photos. Perot denies it. Well? A special law, later aborted, Perot lobbied for would have saved him $15 million in 1974. It passed Congress in "the open," says Perot. In fact, it passed at 10:30 p.m. attached to an omnibus bill; only two staffers knew of it. What gives? Oliver North says Perot suggested he relinquish his Fifth Amendment rights and say President Reagan was innocent prior to the Iran-c ontra hearings, promising Colonel North a job when he got out of jail. Perot denies it. Who is lying?
Ethics bespeak character. High office requires accountability - answering for the past and inconsistencies in recounting it.
Second, Perot's plans and ideas for his presidency.
An excellent critique of problems isn't enough. Paul Tsongas outlined economic woes, then gave a comprehensive plan to remove them. So far, Perot's answers have been negligible.
Perot decries the $400 billion deficit but has not said how he will cut it. What will he do about entitlements? Will he tax Social Security benefits, cut Medicare? Perot's plan to have Germany and Japan pay the US $100 billion for keeping the postwar peace has been withdrawn, but it is worth mentioning for its striking naivete about two of the world's most important emerging powers.
Perot is pro-choice, but says he's given only "10 minutes" of thought to federal support to abortion clinics. He's mute on health care and the environment.
These may seem like details to angry voters seeking change. But like it or not, there is a government, a political process, and a need to know how they work.
Perot wants "the best advisers," to make decisions. Yet with scant knowledge of issues, how does one evaluate who is best? If elected, Perot will "burn the White House lights all night" to find answers. But a president doesn't have much time for that - Jimmy Carter's mistake.
Perot must offer ideas to evaluate. He can't be shielded by "folk hero" status. Voters need clear answers. Other candidates must give them. So should Perot.