Perot and Permanence: A Man, a Plan, a Party?

William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

The verdict is in the hands of a notoriously feckless California jury. Uh-oh.

No, not that verdict. The other one. The verdict on Ross Perot's political fate.

Perot has just 16 more days to register 89,007 voters in his new political party to get it on the California ballot next year.

California's the big test. If he can make it there, he'll make it everywhere. It's up to you, CA, CA.

What if he fails in California? Then it's all over for Perot. In a New York minute.

Experts don't think Perot can do it. But with $3.5 billion, he can do a lot of things. Even buy himself some experts.

The bigger question is, why does Perot need a political party? Is it because he wants to run for President again? Not according to Perot. "I don't need a party to run in," he told Larry King. "I can run as an independent."

Perot has an issue--political reform. He has a constituency--independent voters fed up with politics as usual. He even has a pressure group--United We Stand America. So why does he need a party? Because it's the only way to make his agenda permanent.

Without a party, all Perot has is a protest movement. Protest movements are temporary. Parties try to buy them off--which Republicans and Democrats tried in Dallas a few weeks ago.

But a party can do something a protest movement can't. It can nominate its own candidates. That gives it political clout. With their own party, independent voters can say to the Democrats and Republicans: If you don't do what we want, we'll do it ourselves.

Republicans think Perot is a real stinker. All the GOP candidates trooped down to Dallas and pandered their brains out, trying to win over the Perot voters. And what did they get for their trouble? A kick in the teeth.

If Perot's gets enough voters registered in California and his party gets on the ballot, it could split the anti-Clinton vote and lead to President Bill Clinton's reelection. Perot is willing to take that risk because he wants to protect his agenda.

Perot calls his new party the Independence Party. How's that for an oxymoron? But he says his objective isn't to become a third party. "There won't be a three-party system," he told King. "One of those parties is going to disappear. One of those special-interest parties will have a meltdown." That's where he parts company with the American public.

Most Americans think it's a good idea for Perot to form a new party. And not just independents: 40% of self-described Democrats and Republicans like the idea.

But just one in eight endorses Perot's idea that the new party should replace one of the existing parties. Most Americans think it would be best for the country to have a new party along with the Democrats and Republicans--in other words, a permanent third party. People don't want to eliminate either of the existing choices. They want more choices.

Something interesting has been happening. Pollsters have noticed that Clinton is gaining ground on the GOP front-runner, Sen. Bob Dole. In one poll, for example, Dole was six points ahead of Clinton in March. Now, Clinton is 10 points ahead of Dole.

But Clinton's job approval ratings have not improved. What's happened is a steady erosion of public confidence in the Republican Congress. In February's Gallup poll, 52% thought the GOP leaders of Congress were moving the country in the right direction. Now, it's 41%. Americans are concerned about the shredding of the safety net for the poor and elderly.

Last year, voters lost confidence in Clinton. This year they're losing confidence in the GOP Congress. The real story isn't growing support for Clinton. It's growing dissatisfaction with both sides. In March, 41% of Americans said they would be satisfied with a choice between Clinton and Dole. Now it's 32%. By 2 to 1, Americans say they want more options.

Result: Half the American people say they'd be willing to sign petitions to get the Independence Party on the ballot. That's a market. Perot's a businessman. When a businessman sees a market, he tries to sell something.

Five things are needed to create a new major party. A market is one. Perot's got that.

A second requirement is money. Perot's got lots of that. But he insists he's just going to put up seed money to get the party started. So where will the money to sustain come from? The government? No. Perot has another idea. He says the party will finance itself with small contributions from millions of people--and 16% of the public say they'll contribute.

The third necessity is an issue. When the Republican Party got started in the 1850s, it had the anti-slavery issue. Perot insists the Independence Party is not going to take positions on social issues like abortion. They're too divisive.

Perot's issue is reform--campaign reform, lobbying reform, tax reform, entitlement reform, tough ethical standards for politicians, a balanced-budget amendment and term limits. Those issues have two things in common. They're all favored by overwhelming majorities of the public. And they're things the current political parties can't seem to deliver.

The fourth requirement is an opportunity. In a system like ours, a new party succeeds only if an old party splits. The Democratic-Republican Party split in the 1820s, and gave rise to the Democrats. The Whigs split in the 1850s, and were replaced by the Republicans.

The Independence Party has to displace an existing party. Are the Democrats going to disappear? It's not implausible. They're selling a product--government--for which the market is shrinking. That's how businesses disappear. Democrats have been piling on Clinton from all sides. Some from the left, like Jesse Jackson. Some from the center, like Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey. An opportune third-party candidate--Colin L. Powell?--might be able to pull dissident Democrats together.

Republicans seem to be thriving right now, but there are powerful divisions in the GOP. Moderates could bolt if they believe the party has been captured by the far right. Conservatives could bolt if they think the party is abandoning them on, say, abortion. Or a tax cut.

The final and most important requirement is a leader. A new party needs a bold and distinctive personality who can get elected President. Someone like Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan.

Are there any personalities around with that kind of appeal? Perot's got the bold and distinctive personality. But he can't get elected. And he knows it. He told King, "By the time I get this thing formed and get the money raised and get everything in place, if politics stays as usual, I will be cut to pieces." Right.

Powell is the one person who may have the leadership qualities and the credibility. That's got GOP strategists worried. They want to make sure Powell doesn't run as an Independent. That's why some of them are urging Powell to run as a Republican, even though he's not "politically correct" on conservative issues.

Remember: Nine Republicans are running for President now, and Clinton is beating every one. GOP strategists look at Powell and see a winner. One who would probably have coattails. With Powell at the top of the ticket, Republicans could make their House and Senate majorities more secure.

GOP strategists may even convince themselves that, with Powell as President, conservatives could still control the agenda from Congress. Voters may go for Powell for the opposite reason, however. They may see Powell as a way to balance the Republicans in Congress without having to reelect Clinton. That would destroy Clinton's strategy of running as a check on the GOP Congress.

Perot is noncommittal about Powell ("We want people of that stature and Moreover, Powell could never run as Perot's man. If he did that, he would become, as one Washington wag put it, "the incredible shrinking general." To run as an Independent, Powell would have to seize control of Perot's party.

That raises an interesting question. Perot may succeed in starting his new party. But once it gets started, will he be able to control it? A successful marketing strategy almost always leads to a struggle for control. Ask any businessman.*

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