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Preying on Perotians

By John A. Cloud

July 11, 1992 should not have been a relaxing day for George Bush. He was running third in the polls, behind two men he thought would not be taken seriously. Instead of falling as the economy slowly improved, unemployment was actually rising, and his job rating had never been worse.

But on July 11, Bush played golf. Always an early riser, he started out at 6:40 a.m. for the Cape Arundel course in Kennebunkport and played 18 holes. Nothing happened that day. As Michael Wines of The New York Times wrote in the press pool report for the day: "Four hours, 10 words, no news."

Okay, so Bush was on vacation, and everyone needs a break. But Bush never seemed to understand that politics demanded commitments of him beyond his duties as president. A president can afford a break; a campaigner can't. Bush wanted to separate these two jobs--that he did so helped unseat him.

Bill Clinton does understand his role as campaigner, and he gives time to both governing and campaigning. Too much time, it seems. According to Fred Barnes of The New Republic, Clinton can't seem to quit his job--he sleeps only about six hours a night, and he works most weekends.

To say he's masterful at it is cliched, but it's hard not to mention the bottomless political skill of a man who can turn a rough first 100 days to his advantage: Clinton doesn't point to his specific missteps (mainly not cutting out the pork in his stimulus package when moderate Democratic Sen. John Breaux asked him to, thereby sparking a fight over the pork that the Republicans won). Instead, he says, "I may have overextended myself, and we've got to focus on big things."

But Clinton is coming up on a bigger political problem, one that he hasn't addressed yet. The problem has to do with Perot voters.

Perot drew 19.02 percent of the votes on November 3--more than any third-party or independent candidate except Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and Millard Fillmore in 1856, who were both ex-presidents when they received 21.53 percent and 27.39 percent, respectively.

And as Wall Street Journal pollsters Peter Hart and Robert Teeter said last week, Perot has stunningly retained his constituency even "five months after Election Day."

But Clinton has not begun the gargantuan and ultimately unavoidable task of appealing to these voters. In fact, while he's doing a great job making his brand of neoliberalism appealing to liberals, he may be alienating the Perot voters in the process.

The neoliberal appeal to liberals has manifested itself on three fronts so far: Appointments, the budget and gays in the military. On all three, the Perotians have lost.

Contrary to what some political watchers have said, seeking racial diversity in appointing his Cabinet did not politically hurt Clinton. Americans who value equality of opportunity and the establishment of minority role models (and most do) can accept this essentially political move. Even Republicans must acknowledge that George "I-picked-Clarence-Thomas-because-he-is-the-most-qualified-not-because-he's-Black" Bush did the same.

Indeed, the problem was not too much diversity, but too little: Clinton didn't work for ideological and political diversity as well as racial. The president didn't include a single Perot supporter among his Cabinet appointees. Most were old-line liberals, and only a few (Bruce Babbitt at Interior, Richard R. Riley at Education, Robert B. Reich at Labor, and possibly Les Aspin and Lloyd Bentsen at Defense and Treasury) could be considered New Democrats, who appeal more to Perot supporters.

As for the budget, Clinton included a host of new spending measures and tax incentives that meet neoliberal criteria (i.e., they emphasize the role of markets and efficiency) while addressing traditionally liberal concerns. But the Perotians' chief concern--the deficit--was not attacked with the ferocity they wanted.

Clinton included tax breaks for new firms and new investments in plant and equipment. He asked for more spending for infrastructure (highways, mass transit, a network to link up public facilities)--the kind of thing that will make the U.S. more productive in the long run. He included $3 billion here for energy research and development and $5.75 billion there for tax incentives for those who would invest in low-income housing.

He hacked out billions from the Defense Department budget, and cut piecemeal in other areas: nuclear reactor research, federal employees, water treatment, and federal freebies to corporations. (For example, the Clinton budget would require pharmaceutical companies to pick up a larger share of the Food and Drug Administration's budget.) All in all, stuff that makes neoliberals and (all but the most unreconstructed) liberals alike happy.

But Perot supporters wanted deeper deficit cuts. Depending on whose baseline you use, Clinton's budget would reduce the deficit by more than $100 billion. Clinton says $140 billion, but it's more like $104 billion, according to Harvard Assistant Professor of Economics Douglas W. Elmendorf. Whatever the number, it's not low enough for Perotians, most of whom would like Clinton to eliminate the thing entirely.

Finally, on gays in the military, Perot supporters feel about the same as most Americans on the issue (42 percent of Perotians and 43 percent of all respondents favor ending the ban). But they also feel that Clinton shouldn't be wasting his time pursuing something so explosive. They want him to work on the economy. Period.

How can Clinton go about attracting this vital group of voters? Evidence from last year's campaign suggests a few answers.

Clinton must remember who Perot supporters are and how they differed from Clinton supporters last year. Contrary to press speculation, Perot supporters were not appreciably different from Clinton supporters (or Bush supporters) in regional origin, ideological bent, income, race or education. For example, the average income of committed Clinton supporters was $39,430; it was $40,010 for committed Perot supporters.

The main difference between Perot and Clinton voters dealt with their view of politics as usual. Perotians hate politics. Clintonites are more ambivalent. Nearly three-quarters of Perot supporters felt last year that the two-party system does not "serv[e] this country well," according to a September Harris poll. Only 60 percent of Clinton supporters agreed with that assessment. Almost 20 percent more Perot supporters than Clinton supporters described their interest in politics as "somewhat low" or "low." And fully 92 percent of Perot supporters surveyed in June agreed that "[w]e need a president like Perot who is not a conventional politician."

Even the Perot voters' focus on the deficit belies their hatred of politics as usual. The deficit is essentially a political issue. Unlike unemployment, declining wages or falling exports, the deficit is a total political creation: Members of Congress and the president decide how much spending and taxation the country will undertake. When Republicans refuse to raise taxes and Democrats refuse to cut spending, the deficit goes up. Economics has little to do with it (although the effects of high deficits can clearly be disastrous).

What does this mean for Clinton? Obviously he must focus on deficit reduction, but there are easier steps he can take as well: The President should push Congress to pass a credible campaign reform law. Limits on spending, public funding, more restrictions on PACs--these steps would increase Perotians' faith in the system and endear them to Clinton until at least 1996.

In addition, Clinton should snub his lobbyist friends and stick it to them. He's asked for a tax on firms' use of lobbyists, and he should go farther--ensuring public disclosure of lobbyists' activities is a necessity.

Clinton should also publicly advocate free air time for third-party candidates. Even if a minimum threshold level of support is required to qualify (and there should be one), Perotians would be grateful.

Clinton's start has not been dismal, and those who argue (even on this page) that he's pissed off just about everyone are wrong. According to a recent Wall Street Journal poll, Perot supporters are still giving Clinton the benefit of the doubt over Republicans in Congress, and most liberals and neoliberals like his economic plan.

But Clinton must remember the roots of Perot support--disgust with the political system--if he is to win their hearts and votes.

Clinton's brand of neoliberalism is winning over liberals but alienating Perot voters in the process.

Perotians hate politics as usual. Clinton must remember that if he is to win their support.

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