The net result of the flocking of Republican and Democratic leaders to Ross Perot’s weekend issues conference could be summed up Sunday in six words: They came, they talked, he conquered.
As a consequence of the homage paid to him by the leaders of both established parties over the weekend, Perot has been able to stage a political rehabilitation. Despite the very large percentage of the public that views him negatively, he now seems assured of a chance to help shape the 1996 presidential campaign, perhaps as much as he did the 1992 contest, from start to finish, from within or without and for better or for worse.
That position is in marked contrast to his standing just a year and a half ago, when Perot, badly damaged by the defeat of his campaign against the trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, was left as a figure of ridicule lampooned by cartoonists and late-night comics.
“It was a brilliant political move,” said Howard Phillips, a conservative strategist who was on hand in Dallas to promote his own project, the U.S. Taxpayers Party, which he hopes to get on the ballot in 50 states next fall. “He focused the attention of the entire country on Ross Perot in a way that generates only positives and no negatives. . . . It puts him back into the game and gives him every option in the world.”
As ever, Perot himself remains evasive about which option he will pursue. Some associates see him entering the primaries of one or the other major party next winter before finally deciding later in the election year whether to make another independent run for the presidency.
“There is almost no scenario, including running in the Democratic primary, including running in the Republican primary, that hasn’t been discussed,” said Jim Squires, Perot’s 1992 communications director, who was at the three-day conference as a volunteer aide.
For now, Perot says, he plans to focus his energies on his proposal that the two parties adopt a second “contract with America,” this one highlighted by campaign finance reforms.
Completing that contract by year’s end “would be the nicest Christmas present you could give the American people,” Perot said in a concluding talk to his troops in which he ticked off a number of other reform goals: constitutional amendments requiring a balanced budget and limiting congressional terms, a law to hold elections on weekends so working people would find it easier to vote, and a ban on broadcast of exit poll results until the polls are closed in Hawaii.
“We have to re-establish confidence in our government; we must have [the] highest ethical standards in the White House and Congress,” he said.
Congratulating the audience, and by implication himself, on the success of the meeting, he declared: “A bell is no bell until you ring it. You’ve rung the bell this weekend.”
Should Perot’s Christmas deadline take hold, it would help focus attention on him at least until Congress adjourns. At that point, analysts point out, Perot could claim credit for whatever had been accomplished but, if he chose to do so, could also contend that much more needed to be done, thus justifying his campaign.
For this opportunity, Perot can thank his own cunning and determination and the discontent of the electorate with the two major parties. He can also thank the willingness of the party leaders not only to participate in the conclave sponsored by his United We Stand, America, Inc. organization but also to pay tribute to his reform ideas.
Of course, as Perot frequently demonstrated in 1992, his talent for creating such openings is roughly matched by his tendency to ruin them with his often idiosyncratic behavior. The admiration and affection for him demonstrated by many United We Stand members is not widely shared by the general populace, as reflected by his high negatives in opinion surveys.
But for the time being, at least, Perot’s defects have been overshadowed by the participation here of several thousand United We Stand members and, more important, by the presence of more than 30 prominent national politicians, from Democrat Jesse Jackson on the left to Republican Patrick J. Buchanan on the right.
As the politicians mused over Perot’s options, proponents of a third party with or without Perot at its helm rallied in the ballroom of the convention site Sunday afternoon, and a fair number of the 4,000 or so participants in the conference sounded off at a workshop session titled “New Political Force: Party vs. Other Options.”
While opinions varied, most participants seemed to fall into one of two categories--those who thought Perot should wait for the two major parties to act to seek the presidency and those who want him to declare right away.
“I want him to do exactly what he is doing, making the country aware of what needs to be done in Washington,” said businesswoman Marcia Henderson of Yorba Linda, Calif.
But Jerry Tomkievicz, a Jersey City, N.J., property manager, scoffed at the idea that either of the two parties could provide meaningful reform. “The [Democrats] have no plan, and the [Republicans] don’t want to,” he said. “It’s up to the [independents].”
And many seem fervent in their belief that Perot represents the only real chance of getting action on the economic and political reforms to which they seem committed. “I hate to see him run because of what it does to him,” said Skip Railey, a Dennison, Tex., caretaker. “But I don’t know of anyone else who can be the kind of leader we need.”
Perot, for his part, once again disclaimed any political ambition but also once again refused to rule out plans to seek the presidency.
“My worst nightmare would be to have to live in the White House,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I would never touch it unless it gets through one filter--is it good for our country. . . ? That’s the only reason I would agree to serve a hitch in hell.”