Perot Targets the Deficit

ROSS PEROT has reentered the fray, if not the race. The Texan says all he and his grass-roots legions want is to see George Bush and Bill Clinton address the fundamental problem facing the nation - the deficit.

If Perot's were the only voice making this plea, it might safely be ignored. Deficit reduction is the thorniest of issues, involving tax increases and entitlements cuts.

But Perot's complaint is shared by, among others, the Council for Economic Development, a collection of business and academic leaders who last week decried the lack of credible plans for reducing the deficit. Former Democratic candidate Paul Tsongas and Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire are traversing the land, making the same criticism. A newly formed lobbying group, Lead or Leave, has become another voice for fiscal reform.

The International Monetary Fund has joined in, saying, in effect, that the world's biggest economy should set a better example.

They've all got a point. The accumulating deficit undercuts the United States savings rate, shrinking funds available for private investment; it passes along to future Americans a mountain of debt, constrains public investment, and weakens US leadership in the world economy.

Polls indicate voters want the issue addressed. But do they want Perot's program? It includes a higher gasoline tax, taxing most Social Security benefits, and slashing farm subsidies.

The chances of Bush or Clinton adopting such measures are slim to none. Does that mean Perot will reenter what he calls a demeaning process of public scrutiny?

He'll be on all the ballots in any case, but the public's view of him has dimmed since his July departure. Surveys have shown that 39 percent of voters hold an unfavorable view of Perot. He could still skim support from both Bush and Clinton, though Clinton might be hardest hit.

Perot says his "filter" for every decision is whether it's best for the country. In that case, he should vigorously push the deficit issue forward, while carefully weighing the splintering effects of letting himself be pushed forward as a candidate.

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