Eating Ross

          LAST WEEK BILL Clinton clinched his reelection with one of the neatest pieces of political flummery I've seen in my lifetime, yet our anesthetized national press corps completely missed it. I'm referring to the artful way in which Clinton and his campaign connived to keep Ross Perot out of the televised presidential debates while at the same time convincing everyone they really wanted him in.

          The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, co-directed by veteran Democratic opinion surveyor Peter Hart and his Republican counterpart, Bob Teeter, is arguably the most sophisticated and accurate of the published national samplings, and in the course of this campaign, it has consistently shown that Perot was taking more votes from Clinton than from Bob Dole. The Hart-Teeter findings were buttressed by data from the Pew Center's Andy Kohut (former director of polling for the Los Angeles Times): Both showed that Perot's support this year is younger and more working class than four years ago.

          In 1992, the Tiny Terror from Texarkana scored well among the educated middle classes, particularly webbed-up computeroids admiring of Perot's business acumen as the builder of Electronic Data Systems, the basis of his billions. Much of that appeal melted away in the wake of Perot's bizarre antics and egotistical outbursts, but among blue collar voters--whose anti-GATT and anti-NAFTA passions are kept burning by talk radio--the billionaire's opposition to those two multinational-designed treaties gives him a real difference from this year's candidates of the bipartisan duopoly. Anyone wanting further proof that Perot hurts Clinton more than Dole had only to check out the more recent CNN tracking poll, which showed that when Perot got a small bounce from his first wave of prime-time infomercials, Clinton's numbers went down, while Dole's remained steady.

          Enter the presidential debate commission, a creature of the two-party system whose maneuverings are so suspect that in 1992, the nonpartisan League of Women Voters walked away from co-sponsorship of debates in protest. The Democratic co-chairman of the commission, Paul Kirk, former head of the Democratic National Committee, is a tough and cynical lawyer-lobbyist whose influence-peddling fortunes are umbilically tied to those of the Clinton White House now that the Congress is in the hands of the Republicans. The notion that Kirk would flout the Clinton campaign is ludicrous, so the unanimous commission vote recommending the exclusion of Perot should have been the tip-off to sentient journalists of the White House's real desires.

          When the Dole and Clinton operatives met to formally plan the debates, Clinton representative Mickey Kantor put the lie to his boss's Let-Perot-In posturings by quickly agreeing to a two-candidate limit (as one Republican participant put it, "We met at 9, and Perot was out by 9:05"). But in exchange for axing Perot as the Republicans wished, Kantor cleaned their clock: just two debates, not the four the GOP wanted; 90 minutes long, not the hour favored by the aging Dole; and one so-called "town meeting," a format at which Clinton excels and which Dole detests.

          Further, Clinton's nifty sleight-of-hand in making Dole the heavy in all this has guaranteed that for the remaining six weeks before the voting, Perot's savage bleats will be aimed largely at the Republican candidate. ("The man's a war hero but he's afraid to debate me?" squawked the Tiny Terror last weekend.)

          Dole wanted Perot out because he needs to capture all the anti-Clinton vote to have even a prayer of winning; Clinton wanted Perot out because in-depth, fine-tuned private polling for the White House showed that in certain states in the Midwest and the West, Perot could snag enough votes to tip them to the Republicans.

          That the Beltway mediocracy missed this story is confirmation that most political reporters have a psychic stake in what Jesse Jackson has called the two-party, one-name system--it's all they know. I have little use for Ross Perot, and his refusal to debate Dick Lamm in the Reform Party's primary makes Ross ill-placed to carp. Still, his exclusion from the fall debates not only ensures a big Clinton victory--chances are it would not have forestalled that anyway--but also bodes ill for any future independent challenge to two-party presidential politics.

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