ARE we seeing for the first time now a declaration of war against Ross Perot by the leadership of both parties?
Sen. Thad Cochran, chairman of the Republican Senate conference, seemed eager to take on Mr. Perot in a recent Monitor breakfast: ``He is a demagogue. He's not to be trusted in terms of the way he characterizes facts about trade or the budget or government processes. I have been appalled at the way he has gotten away with attracting attention by just being a shrill.''
Former President Jimmy Carter has hit Perot on his anti-NAFTA views: ``Unfortunately in our country now we have a demagogue who has unlimited financial resources and who is extremely careless with the truth, who is preying on the fears and uncertainties of the American public.''
President Clinton and former Presidents Bush and Ford cheered him on.
A demagogue is a ``leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power,'' according to Webster's. When one politician accuses another of using ``demagoguery,'' it isn't a compliment, but carries little sting. When a politician uses the word ``demagogue,'' however, it is meant to hurt.
The tough rhetoric is mainly due to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which the president and all recent presidents, including Nixon, are backing - and which Perot is opposing. Perot says millions of jobs will be lost to Mexico. The Clinton side says the pact would add hundreds of thousands of jobs to the US economy. Interestingly, the president has received a letter signed by a number of economists asserting that ``the effects [of NAFTA] on the United States economy - both good and bad - would be small for many years.'' But these economists and their views have had little bearing on what the political leaders and their adversaries are saying the effect of NAFTA would be and, hence, what the battle is all about.
Up until these harsh accusations from Mr. Carter and Senator Cochran (the third ranking Republican in the Senate), the leadership of both parties had stopped short of hitting Perot too hard, lest they antagonize millions of his supporters. But this hands-off-Perot policy has taken a sudden change. It appears that Republicans and Democrats alike are concluding that they and their programs are being unfairly attacked by the Texan, and that they simply aren't going to take it any more.
On NAFTA, it is the party leaders (House majority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri being the exception) who are aligned against Perot in a most bitter confrontation. When a word like ``demagogue'' is used, it can mean no turning back from a war by the party leaders against Perot. Perot, himself, did not heap coals on the fire when he responded to Carter on the Today Show. ``He cannot have read NAFTA,'' he said. ``He cannot be aware of how the Mexican workers working in US companies live.''
But Perot is someone many Republicans, especially Bush Republicans, won't forgive. They are convinced Perot siphoned more voters from Bush than from Mr. Clinton. They also feel that Perot was rougher on Bush than on Clinton during the campaign.
One Democratic insider says Clinton will never forgive Perot for saying that the president was only qualified to be a ``middle-level manager.'' Clinton is known to be privately angry over the way Perot has stood in the way of his administration's plans.
Perot is a power, as polls show. But recently I've sensed a declining intensity in Perot's support. Many who admire Perot also say, ``Let's give Clinton a chance.''