THOUGH his bid for the White House is now history, Ross Perot finally came up with a specific policy statement. His deficit-elimination plan is in fact painfully specific, politically speaking.
The public should use this plan as a marker against which alternative approaches can be judged. Now that Mr. Perot has left the race, his plan has the advantage of tackling the most sensitive issues - tax hikes and entitlements, for example - free of the threat of political doom. Its disadvantage is that it may be shunted aside as politically irrelevant.
That shouldn't happen. The Perot plan is a needed "reality check," indicating the kinds of tough decisions required if the deficit is going to be effectively addressed. Under the plan, a much larger percentage of Social Security income would be taxable - up to 85 percent from the current 50 percent for people with incomes above a certain level. The tax deduction for interest on home mortgages would be limited to the first $200,000 of a mortgage. Such moves represent the first brave steps toward decreasin g what amount to entitlements for the wealthy.
Perot also proposes a 50-cent hike in gas taxes over five years, something that would hit all Americans.
The economic blueprints by those still in the race look a bit wimpish by comparison. President Bush hammers away on his economic-growth package, asserting that if Congress would just pass it, the deficit would start to melt away. Elements of his package are indeed needed - such as tax incentives for investment and research and development.
Bill Clinton's plan emphasizes public investment in education, training, and infrastructure. He would also raise income taxes for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans (those with incomes over $200,000) - an article of faith with equity-conscious Democrats.
Over the next 90 days, competing views of the economy will fight for the voter's heart. Bush's capital-gains proposal will be slammed as a gift to the rich. (But even the Democrats have a version of capital-gains relief.) Clinton's public investments will be excoriated as "tax and spend." (But who can argue against putting greater resources toward schools and job training?)
Voters are likely to recognize that a solid economic plan should include elements favored by both parties.
They should also watch to see who addresses the deficit-reduction suggestions put forward by Perot. Any candidate who shies away from tough choices - refusing to confront the deficit's devastating impact on savings and investment in this country - deserves a hoot or two.