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COLUMN RIGHT / TOM BETHELL : Perot Lacks Attraction for Conservatives : His managerial approach to government lacks a philosophy, and he waffles on fiscal reform.

June 14, 1992|TOM BETHELL | Tom Bethell is a media fellow at the Hoover Institution.

With a few exceptions--the Gulf War, abortion--President Bush has adopted a strategy of giving lukewarm support to Democratic policies. In doing so he concedes whatever principle may be at stake and ends up quibbling over dollars and cents. Reasoning that they have little to lose, a good many Republicans (if the polls are right) are getting ready to vote for Ross Perot. Conservatives so tempted may want to reconsider.

Perot is conservative in style, speech and dress, but that is about the extent of it. In temperament he is more in tune with the restless activism of modern politics. He fits easily into the give-'em-hell tradition of Harry Truman, and Franklin D. Roosevelt's comment that the Constitution was suited to the horse-and-buggy era might well have been uttered by Perot.

According to Perot's diagnosis, the problem with the government is gridlock in Washington. A determined President, aided by business expertise, could break the logjam and make things work properly. If he believes that, he knows little about government, and both he and his supporters are going to be disappointed if he is elected.

First of all, constitutional government is supposed to be gridlocked. The accumulated experience of despotism taught the framers that government should be vested with limited powers, hobbled with separate branches and restrained by an independent judiciary. The real problem in Washington today is not that government is hamstrung, but that it is not. It is out of control.

The old constitutional restraints have broken down, mainly because the framers did not anticipate the extent to which aggrieved, organized groups would be able to vote themselves benefits from the Treasury. If Perot were discussing the problem along these lines, one might have some confidence that he would be able to cure it. But he is doing no such thing.

He does emphasize the federal budget fiasco, specifically the $3-trillion national debt and the $400-billion budget deficit. "If we don't raise taxes, we have to cut spending," he said on the "Today" show Thursday. He would raise taxes only in an "emergency," he added, and he seemed to think that spending could be cut by "getting rid of waste." Here he sounds like Jimmy Carter, who found when he arrived in Washington that no item in the budget was labeled "waste." Until Perot campaigns unambiguously to reduce the size of government, conservatives should withhold their support.

Perot conceives of government as a badly run company, when the truth is that it's a runaway monopoly. If he can't see the difference, there is little chance that he will be able to institute reforms. Does he plan to close down inefficient operations? Government, he will find, is in the business of losing money. The inverted incentives of bureaucrats, who try to spend (meaning lose) money as quickly as possible, notoriously disorient businessmen who arrive in Washington vowing to make a difference. Lacking the guidance of profit-and-loss statements, they soon find themselves out of their depth. Nothing cheers bureaucrats more than the knowledge that a hard-charging businessman is heading their way, soon to be their boss. They will runs rings around the poor fellow.

Unlike George Bush or Bill Clinton, Perot is enthusiastic about industrial policy. "Target the industries of the future," he confidently asserts. "Have an alliance between government and business." He shows deep distrust of markets when he talks of "long-term plans" for industry. His protectionist impulses are obviously strong, despite his support for "free and fair" trade. He opposes the free-trade agreement with Mexico. His idea of education reform is to support higher school taxes to increase teachers' pay. He has disparaged Social Security for the rich. If he had his way, this program would become one more Robin Hood scheme.

He talks constantly in terms of "shoring up the tax base," and unlike Ronald Reagan does not question government's problem-solving capacities. He has supported compulsory public service for 18-year olds. Oh, and if only those revenue agents in Washington would get themselves "a decent computer system," they would be able to narrow the budget gap by $100 billion or so.

Perot has sensibly questioned why, with the Cold War over, we should go on paying for the defense of Western Europe and Japan, and he seems to dislike foreign aid. There's no doubt that he is refreshing. On the whole, though, there is little in what he has said to arouse conservative enthusiasm. For those who have not entirely given up on limited government there are other possibilities, outside the GOP: the Libertarians, for one, or the Taxpayers Party, led by Howard Phillips.

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