Out of America: Perot sees a role for a pint-sized puppeteer

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - At first, to borrow the dictum attributed to former Yankees catcher Lawrence 'Yogi' Berra, baseball's master of malapropism, it seemed deja vu all over again. There, back in the nation's living-rooms on Sunday evening, was the pint-sized, jug-eared, squeaky-voiced scourge of Washington - Ross Perot himself.

He was doing what he likes best, brandishing charts and spewing forth trade-mark homilies by the fistful, railing away on prime-time television about the deficit, a wastrel Congress, evil lobbyists, and a government which didn't work.

This time though, the format was slightly different. Beforehand, Mr Perot had arranged for a 17-question poll to be printed in 15 million copies of the weekly TV Guide magazine. Half way through the show, the questions rolled up on the screen (sample: Should there be a balanced- budget amendment? Should Congress impose pay-cuts on itself?), each after a barbed introduction from our host. Viewers were invited to fill in their answers, attach their names and addresses and send the questionnaire to a PO Box in Kentucky. In short, it was the first try- out of the 'electronic town hall' by which Mr Perot said he would now be running the country had he been elected president last autumn.

Proceedings ended with another stunt, as Mr Perot invited the population to turn on their car headlights as they drove to work on Monday if they agreed with his nostrums - 'And don't forget to turn them off when you get there, or you'll be blaming me for a dead battery'. But do not be misled by the knockabout. Love him or loathe him (and if only on the grounds of sheer entertainment value I am squarely in the first camp), Ross Perot today may be a greater force in US politics even than last November, when he won 20 per cent of the vote.

Somewhat sadly, I imagined I was seeing the back of Little Ol' Ross when, in that most unforgettable cameo of election night, they struck up his campaign theme tune Crazy and, with that idiot's grin splitting his face from ear to ear, he swept up his bemused wife Margot for a last waltz across the stage of a ballroom in Dallas. In truth, however, Mr Perot has never gone away. A couple of months ago, he put his United We Stand America organisation on a permanent footing. Since then, over a million people have already signed up at dollars 15 ( pounds 10) apiece. At least 5 million more, preliminary figures suggest, tuned into Sunday's 30 minutes on NBC.

In short, this unguided missile of American politics packs a bigger warhead than ever. His approval rating - 58 per cent in a recent CNN poll - equals that of President Clinton; compare that with the closing stages of the campaign when half the electorate wrote off Mr Perot as a raving megalomaniac. Now he has put together what David Broder, the Washington Post columnist and doyen of American political writers, suggests is a larger donor base and membership than either the Republican or Democratic National Committees boasted in 1992.

Sunday's spectacular may not have been scientific. Professional pollsters deride the loaded questions. Who, they argue, would bother to write in and say No? You can bet a million dollars to a marshmallow that the winning majority will be reminiscent of voting returns to the old Supreme Soviet - and about as reliable a yardstick of public opinion. But that isn't the point. Sunday's show will undoubtedly add hundreds of thousands to the mailing lists of UWSA. To all intents and purposes, America has what it has never had in recent memory: an organised third party with a distinctive programme.

And so to the question they didn't ask on Sunday: What is Ross Perot really up to? The obvious reply is that he wants to be kingmaker. Vanity is part of the Perot persona. He will not be elected President in 1996; indeed he positively cackles at the very notion. But let us take him at his word. Mr Perot may never make it to the White House but if one voter in five remains loyal to him, he will have a big say in who does.

Remember too that Perotism has found its second wind at the very moment Bill Clinton is stealing its clothes, attempting to push through a deficit cutting package whose philosophy, if not scope, the man from Dallas can only praise. Should Congress turn sour - as may yet happen when the fine print of the budget proposals reaches Capitol Hill - a thunderous 'I Told You So' will boom from the direction of north Texas. The Perot cohorts will become legions. Driving into work on Monday morning, I counted but three cars with their headlamps on. By the time 1996 comes around, their glare could be blinding.