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Swimming With a Shark Named Perot : Political legitimizing of the Texan could doom GOP in 1996.

June 20, 1993|MORTON M. KONDRACKE | Morton M. Kondracke publishes Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newsletter

Finally, a few mainstream politicians are taking on Ross Perot. Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento) accused the little dictator of "demagoging" against the North American Free Trade Agreement. Former Education Secretary William Bennett warned Republicans that by "pandering" to Perot, they were creating a monster that might overwhelm them. Bennett said House Republicans who met with Perot recently were conferring legitimacy on him as the "chosen alternative" to President Clinton.

"We could end up making him so big, he'll overshadow us," Bennett warned. "We've got to stop piggybacking on his criticisms of Clinton and develop alternatives of our own."

Perot, he said, "doesn't stand for things most Republicans believe in. He's not a conservative." As evidence of this, Bennett cited Perot's support for abortion rights and higher taxes and his opposition to free trade and interventionism abroad.

About 60 members attended a two-hour forum on NAFTA with Perot on June 10, sponsored by the House Republican Research Committee. Many posed for pictures with him, and several cheered him for attacking Clinton's economic program. Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) urged Perot to expand his attacks to include character issues.

Afterward, several GOP members appeared with Perot at an anti-NAFTA press conference during which Perot also endorsed Republican complaints about overly restrictive House rules imposed by the Democratic majority.

Those crowding around Perot at the press conference included Duncan Hunter (R-Coronado), chairman of the research committee; Gerald B.F. Solomon (N.Y.), the ranking Republican on the House Rules Committee; and Reps. Toby Roth (Wis.), Helen Delich Bentley (Md.) and Terry Everett (Ala.).

NAFTA supporters held a separate press conference at which Matsui made the demagoguery charge about Perot's assertion that the United States might lose hundreds of thousands of jobs to Mexico when evidence suggests that NAFTA would be a job-gainer for Americans.

So far, only two House Republicans, Texas' Joe Barton and Northern California's John T. Doolittle, have actually joined Perot's organization, United We Stand America. But Solomon and Hunter both said they would welcome Perot running for President as a Republican, even though they would not necessarily support him.

Solomon said Perot "is a viable candidate. We have a lot of them, including (Sen.) Bob Dole and (former Defense Secretary) Dick Cheney, but Ross Perot could carry the banner of the Republican Party."

Perot, Hunter said, "has helped to give Republicans credibility by beating up on Clinton. He's given us back the fiscal responsibility issue" and put "a lot of third-party pressure" behind Republican critiques of the Administration.

It's just this strategy that Bennett countered: "It's not clever. It's flawed," he said. "By horsing around with Perot, we legitimize him, and it may be hard to delegitimize him. Instead of being the second force in American politics, we could be third."

Bennett's and Matsui's blasts at Perot are welcome, but a lot of other politicians need to join in. Last year, Perot went so far as to accuse President Bush of using "dirty tricks" to harass Perot's family. This year, Perot has accused Clinton of plotting to intervene militarily abroad in order to divert attention from domestic problems.

It has been left to the press, by and large, to scream about this and to uncover the fact that Perot's organization is run top-down by its authoritarian leader, not bottom-up by the "volunteers," as he pretends.

The surge in Perot's popularity ratings has mercifully been arrested, but it's time that other politicians came out from hiding to expose Perot for the menace that he is.

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