Nervous about their 1996 prospects with a restless and discontented electorate, leaders of both political parties vied here Friday for the support of Ross Perot’s adherents by pledging to carry out reforms favored by the Texas billionaire’s backers.
But the Rev. Jesse Jackson, in his own appearance at a national issues conference sponsored by Perot’s United We Stand, America, Inc. challenged the right of either party to wear the reformist mantle. And in the process Jackson, a two-time Democratic presidential candidate, left open the possibility that he might himself run as an independent for the White House in 1996, a move that most think would severely damage President Clinton’s reelection prospects.
All this took place before an audience which, while falling short of the 8,000 projected by Perot’s aides, made up--at least in part--for their modest numbers with their seriousness and enthusiasm. The crowd generally listened closely to a parade of speakers and cheered robustly when one of the orators touched a responsive chord. And as the attending politicians well knew, the media coverage given the proceedings assured an audience many times greater than the crowd in the hall.
Typifying the sober mood and focus on substance that pervaded the meeting was Hans Giesholt of Palm Springs, an issues coordinator for California’s United We Stand organization. Giesholt, a computer network technician, proudly wore a button opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Perot himself fought in vain against.
“I would really like to see Perot run again,” Giesholt said, when asked whether he thought the businessman should stage a repeat of his 1992 presidential candidacy next year. “But our first job is to fix the major parties.”
That was just the theme Perot himself tried to establish. Asked by reporters even before the three-day conference got under way whether he would again seek the White House, Perot replied, almost plaintively: “That’s not what this is all about--please.”
The conference got off to a wobbly start. Although its organizers had expected a crowd of more than 8,000, only about half that number seemed to be on hand. And some of the crowd got in free--Perot waived the $100 registration fee to let in teachers, nurses, seniors and some other groups.
United We Stand officials refused to discuss the attendance. “I haven’t had time to count them,” claimed the organization’s executive director, Russ Verney. “All the people who are here are here.”
For the politicians who attended, the size of the audience mattered less than the throng of reporters at the event and the gavel-to-gavel coverage by C-SPAN.
“If you are running for office why wouldn’t you go there?” one Republican strategist asked. “How else do you get that many media people together in one place?”
Both parties responded to that draw. White House counselor Thomas (Mack) McLarty, representing Clinton, was the lead advocate for the Democrats. In his speech, he promised that Clinton would press Congress for campaign finance reform, an item high on the United We Stand agenda.
“It’s time now for Congress to act,” he said. “Until Congress does act, the President will move forward to change the system. That’s why just last week he issued an executive order that requires lobbyists to publicly and fully disclose if they lobby the executive branch.”
Although White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry had vowed that McLarty would not pander to Perot, McLarty did try to establish a personal bond with the Texan. He mentioned that he and Perot had grown up in towns only a few miles apart, adding: “Long before I ever came to Washington, I developed a respect for Ross and his leadership skills.”
McLarty backed up his remarks with a 33-page, blue booklet on Clinton’s record, titled “A Report to the United We Stand America Convention.” Nearly 1,000 copies were distributed to conference attendees.
As for the Republicans, House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia yielded to no one in attempting to ingratiate himself with his listeners. He began his 25-minute speech by declaring his excitement “to be here with my fellow revolutionaries who are committed to changing America.” For good measure, he praised Perot’s latest book, which deals with reform of Medicare and Medicaid, holding it up for the television cameras.
To demonstrate that he was a kindred spirit with Perot and those who followed him in his 1992 insurgency, he declared: “Don’t trust anyone you loan power to. Watch them, make them accountable, and if they don’t do what they told you they would do, fire them.”
Like many of the officeholders who spoke, Gingrich promised to pursue campaign reform. Referring to criticisms that he has been slow to follow up on his handshake agreement in June with President Clinton on naming a bipartisan commission on political reform, Gingrich contended that rushing to set up such a panel would ensure its failure.
“I think this subject is too serious to play narrow, cheap political games with,” he said.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri went so far as to propose limiting campaigns to six to eight weeks and doing away with political advertisements on television in favor of events similar to Perot’s conference. Not surprisingly, Perot and the crowd enthusiastically embraced those suggestions.
GOP national Chairman Haley Barbour claimed the 1994 election gave his party “a mandate for reform.” In seeking to convince Perot supporters that they and Republicans had the same viewpoints on a number of issues, he cited his party’s efforts to balance the budget by 2002 without raising taxes, to overhaul the welfare system by eliminating incentives for out-of-wedlock births and to salvage the Medicare system now threatened with bankruptcy.
Earlier in the day, Jackson had challenged both parties to match their actions to their rhetoric. “We must call our leaders into account,” he said. He added that “the history of America is a history of citizens moving outside of parties and traditions,” citing the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and the civil rights revolution as movements that have been led by outsiders.
“The President and conservatives come here looking for your support because of mythical commitments to balance the budget in seven or nine years,” he said. “But you and I know that those plans depend on a range of assumptions that are virtually by definition wrong.”
After his talk, Jackson kept alive speculation that he might launch an independent presidential bid, saying he has made no decision about whether to run in 1996 and had set no deadline for deciding.
In the contest for Perot supporters, Republicans have been heartened by exit polls, which showed that most of Perot’s 1992 voters who went to the polls in 1994 supported GOP candidates. Nevertheless, a Gallup poll released Friday showed that in a three-way race, Perot would get even a larger share of the vote than the 19% he received in 1992.