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Against All Odds : Running for president can be habit-forming. Perot is but the latest in a long line of perpetual candidates.

July 21, 1996|Robert Dallek | Robert Dallek is a historian who has taught at six universities, including UCLA and Oxford. His latest book, "Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents," will be published in September by Hyperion

WASHINGTON — Ross Perot's decision to run again for president is about as surprising as yesterday's weather report. Having already run two unsuccessful campaigns in 1992--his abortive spring bid followed by his return to the hustings in September--you would think he had had enough of electoral politics. True, he got 19% of the popular vote, but he didn't come close to winning a single electoral ballot and polls now show he won't do any better this time. Indeed, his current 14% support could well shrink by November. His overbearing manner and zany ideas about who's out to get him will remind many voters why they didn't find him a credible alternative to Bill Clinton or George Bush in '92.

Why then does Perot bother to run? Even more puzzling, why are former Colorado Gov. Richard D. Lamm and public advocate Ralph Nader joining Perot in futile bids for the unobtainable?

Lamm's gloomy picture of American prospects and insistence on sacrifices, especially by the elderly of some of their Medicare entitlements, will hardly make for a winning campaign. Nor is it possible to imagine Nader's muckraking zeal translating into a popular campaign.

Perot, Lamm and Nader have plenty of rationalizations for running. Each must be salivating at the thought of competing against Bob Dole. To say that Dole has little hold on the public's imagination is to imply he will find a way in the next three and half months to generate some enthusiasm for his campaign.

As for Clinton, no doubt Perot, Lamm and Nader must comfort themselves with the thought that almost anything can happen. Whitewater, the FBI files, a stock-market collapse or any number of potential foreign-policy failures may all have the power to trip up the president.

But even without these calculations, Perot, Lamm, and Nader see ample reason to run. U.S. history is replete with examples of leading political figures, as well as third-party and fringe candidates, who never expected to win, but ran--and, in some cases, kept running--for the sake of the national well-being. How else can you explain the Federalist Charles C. Pinckney, whose three unsuccessful campaigns between 1800 and 1808 became exercises in political futility? Much the same can be said of Sen. Henry Clay's three failed bids for the White House as the Whig Party candidate between 1824 and 1844; and Democrat William Jennings Bryan's, which left him a distant second in 1896, 1900 and 1908.

But at least Pinckney, Clay and Bryan ran as major-party candidates, with some limited hope of winning. America's third-party/fringe aspirants had other motives for making the personal sacrifices required in a national campaign. Most were true believers. Gen. James B. Weaver, the Greenback-Labor candidate in 1880 and the People's Party man in 1892, was determined to ease the suffering of farmers and laborers in a rapidly industrializing nation, in which concentrated wealth and power had closed doors of opportunity and seemed to be creating a class of permanently impoverished citizens.

Prohibition and Socialist Party candidates between 1884 and 1920 also saw themselves as crusaders against suffering and injustice. None could possibly have hoped to reach the White House. While Eugene V. Debs, the four-time Socialist nominee, at least remains a name to reckon with in American history, who remembers the Prohibitionist challengers--John P. St. John, Clinton B. Fisk, John Bidwell, John C. Wooley, Silas C. Swallow, Eugene W. Chafin or J.F. Hanly? Debs and his Prohibitionist counterparts never won a single electoral vote. And though Debs won more than 900,000 popular votes in two elections, the Prohibitionists never attracted more than a quarter-million supporters.

Yet, despite their limited gains at the polls, the Populists saw the Progressives enact some of their most passionately advocated reforms. Similarly, the Prohibitionists, for all the obscurity of their presidential candidates and anemic voter support, won passage of the 18th Amendment, banning the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors in a 13-year "great experiment." The Socialists, as well, never came close to taking the White House--but they took satisfaction from the rise of a welfare state in the 1930s and 1960s, which went far toward humanizing the American industrial system with a safety net of government programs for the poor and elderly.

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