Bill Clinton's Big Debt To H. Ross Perot

SOMEWHERE in the Dallas suburbs, I hope the little man with big ears is kicked back in his favorite chair, sipping a cold beer and counting his blessings.

He has it coming. Ross Perot's upstart presidential campaign ventured further than any third party campaign in a generation - 50 states, 19 million votes, 19 percent of the electorate. In Washington, he almost outpolled George Bush.

He must shudder at the thought that it almost went too far. Based on Tuesday's returns, Perot was just a couple of boo-boos away from actually competing for the White House, which would have messed up everything.

Perot was not cut out to be President. The skills and instincts that built his computer-services empire would not have translated well to the gray arts of national politics. A few weeks on the campaign trail proved that.

Life in the White House would have been worse still. In addition to being a sizeable step down in living standards, he would have had to put up with all those policy wonks, boring meetings and those infernal reporters asking questions to which there are no easy answers.

But Perot's campaign was a crucial and well-timed gift to the American political system. He did exactly what third-party campaigns are supposed to do: point out the ideological bankruptcy of the major parties, and provide voters with an alternative to business as usual.

Not least among his contributions was a whole set of folksy one-liners - from "This ain't Lawrence Welk music" to "I'm all ears." Perot had the audacity to inject levity into a business dominated by politicians who take themselves far more seriously than voters do.

The Texan and his Texanisms attracted millions of long-disenchanted Americans into a system suffering in part from their neglect. Stop by Perot's volunteer office, and you'll find a storefront full of folks who hadn't voted for years, and didn't intend to, until Perot showed them that real people can make a difference.

And they did.

Perot's approach to the federal budget, explained with flip charts and straight talk, introduced voters to some harsh realities they weren't going to hear from the other guys.

Ronald Reagan and George Bush were right when they said the government is spending too much money. But Reagan's fatal flaw was that he believed his own TV commercials - that we are going bankrupt because of waste, fraud and abuse, mostly in the welfare department. Bush picked up the same tune.

Democrats were no help. Michael Dukakis said the problem was spending too much money on the military, but he was only partly right. Clinton played a slight variation on that theme.

Perot, the businessman, looked at the numbers, wiggled his ears and reached a very different conclusion. Yes, there is waste and abuse, but that's not why we're going broke, he said.

The problem is a profound and almost invisible change in federal spending. Twenty-five years ago, the government spent money building roads and dams, aircraft carriers and the space program, helping out state governments, and trying to take care of poor people.

Today most of our money goes to paying interest on the national debt, and to mammoth programs - Medicare and Medicaid, farm subsidies, student loans, pensions, tax deductions on home mortgages and medical plans - all of which essentially subsidize middle- and upper-income American taxpayers.

We gotta stop that, Perot said.

There are three ways to do that: Raise taxes; Stop giving money and tax breaks to people who don't need it and haven't earned it, or some of both.

Bush and Clinton knew that, but they weren't about to say it. Gotta get elected first. But they had this dilemma: If you don't say it in the campaign, it's very tough to do it in the White House.

Then along comes Ross Perot, who said it. It was not Lawrence Welk music. He talked about a 50-cents gas tax, a cap on deductions for home loans and medical plans, limits on Medicare, taxing Social Security benefits, and so forth.

How much of this got through to American voters? It doesn't matter. Perot spent millions on prime-time TV, laying out his ideas, and he got nearly 20 million votes.

Surely those votes are not lost on the president-elect. Bill Clinton, who kept Perot's shared sacrifices at arm's length during the campaign, is in a position to claim those votes as part of the repudiation of the Bush administration, and to borrow whatever he pleases from Ross Perot's platform.

Come January, Clinton can lay out his vision: Universal health care, re-investment in schools and highways and transportation, national service linked to federal college loans . . .

But Clinton now can do these things without breaking the bank. In the same speech, he can look Americans in the eye and ask them to share the costs - a moderate gas tax to pay for a transportation initiative, a strict cap on the mortgage deduction, curbs on rampant giveaways, an end to farm subsidies and more.

He can do this because, thanks to Ross Perot, shared sacrifice is part of Clinton's mandate.

And that ain't bubble music.

Ross Anderson's column appears Friday on editorial pages of The Times.