THE prospective candidacy of Ross Perot has the potential for turning this year's presidential election into one of the most interesting of the century. It also will have the effect of raising important questions about the way we conduct our national political life, questions that might not have arisen without a strong independent candidate. And quite as obviously it raises an air of uncertainty as we begin the summer.
Given the patent dissatisfaction with the way government is operating at the federal level, the candidacy of someone with the attention-getting power of Mr. Perot should not be compared with any third-party effort in memory. Perot has said that he will not be caught defining his position on major subjects in sound-bites for television. This should not obscure the fact that he has already shown himself a master of the earthy kind of one-liners that appeal to much in the American psyche. Whatever the final
judgment on him, we will all be listening.
The candidacy raises questions about the ways in which we finance our campaigns. Quick to answer the charge that he is trying to buy the presidency, Perot counters that he is using his own money and not the taxpayers'. As a nation, we have not been in the habit of turning our backs on some of our wealthy families, such as the Rockefellers, who have rendered decades of major public service. His candidacy will certainly raise questions about the role of political action committees (PACs), particularly in t he funding of congressional campaigns.
The candidacy may also raise questions about the future role of the two major political parties. Over the course of this century, they seem to have been less successful at the national level at harmonizing conflicting regional interests than they once were. Do the two parties actually represent something different in the stream of American thought today? Most of us would say that the Republicans stand more for the emphasis on individual freedom, at least in the economic sphere, and the Democrats for the emphasis on fairness and justice in this democracy. Yet there are enormous overlaps, and neither party can lay claim to ownership of concepts as fundamental as freedom or justice.
Have the parties become less relevant in a television age, when every candidate can go directly to his constituents? Have they become less relevant in a generation dominated by one-issue interest groups (abortion rights, the environment, and so on)? Even the chance that an independent candidate might win the presidency requires us to rethink the viability of the party structure in this electronic age.
Does the seeming impasse between the president and Congress on many social and economic issues result only from the fact that opposing parties control them? Or, perhaps, does that impasse reflect an ambivalence about those same issues among the American public? In that case, a Perot victory would not of itself break the so-called gridlock in Washington.
In a long article in the July Atlantic entitled "The Suburban Century Begins," William Schneider says, "We are now a suburban nation with an urban fringe and a rural fringe." He shows in statistical detail how several states went for John Kennedy in 1960 because JFK came out of the urban areas with a large majority. The Democratic majority in those cities is even stronger today, but the demographics are reversed. What counts in 1992, he says, will be the kind of majority a candidate emerges with from the
This so-called suburban voter is generally well educated, socially liberal but economically conservative. Mr. Schneider's article was prepared before the Perot candidacy loomed so large, but his argument that the election will likely be won by whoever can appeal to this modern suburban voter is one that all three candidates cannot ignore.
If US presidential campaigns are too long, at least the 1992 race is going to be both thrilling and instructive.