Perot's Real Wild Card

A YEAR AGO RICHARD LAMM, the three-term former governor of Colorado, spent the night with his wife in the Lincoln Bedroom, guests of their old friend Bill Clinton, whom Lamm says he endorsed earlier than any other national Democrat did back in 1991. "It's 12:30 or 1 at night, and Bill Clinton asks me and Dottie, "What do you know about the Chilean social-security system?' " Lamm recalled last week. The answer was zip, nada. "Now this is my full-time thing -- figuring out how we're going to handle the retirement of the baby boomers -- so boy did I feel like a dumb ass." Clinton not only knew more than Lamm about the appalling insolvency of American social security and Medicare, he arranged for a special report about the innovative market-based Chilean solution to be slipped under Lamm's door early the next morning.

But as 1995 wore on, Lamm found himself furious at his friend for blocking modest Medicare reform: "I am awed by his understanding, which just makes his demagoguing worse. He knows what's happening, and yet he's poisoning the well. I've never seen more born-again Democrats among seniors. Dole's their age, but they're for Clinton. He has deliberately rebuilt his career on the back of one of the great challenges of our society, and I can't forgive that." For months, Lamm has been publicly calling Clinton an "amiable windsock," but now his contempt may develop into something more.

Ross Perot had a private message delivered to Lamm urging him to jump into the race for the Reform Party's nomination. Neither is talking about their communication, and Lamm denies that he's running, but he sounds game if the circumstances are right. "If Ross Perot was clear that he is not a candidate, Lamm would be in the race the next day," says Mark Sturdevant, vice chairman of the 130,000-member Reform Party of California, which will host Lamm as keynote speaker at its June 1 convention. Sturdevant, who believes a groundswell will develop for Lamm, says he and others in the party take Perot at face value when the bantam billionaire says he doesn't want to be the candidate.

But this is Ross Perot we're talking about. That means Lamm risks looking sacrificial -- fresh meat lured into the race to make it seem "open" before Perot is anointed at his Labor Day convention. Perot may also be hoping to coax Lamm onto the ticket as his vice presidential nominee, which Lamm told me he won't accept. "I'd love to be the nominee, but I'm not going to run with Ross Perot or against him or just with his money," says Lamm. The money is not as big a factor as it's cracked up to be; Lamm would get plenty of "free media" coverage. But would Perot ever really step aside? Call me crazy, but I think it's possible. Remember, he's dropped out before.

Lamm would probably hurt Clinton more than Dole, but these calculations matter only if you think elections are exclusively about who wins. "I don't think of myself as president, I think of myself as Paul Revere," says Lamm, who's now teaching at the University of Denver. "If I run, I'd go after all the sacred cows" -- teachers unions and trial lawyers on the left, the Christian Coalition and gas-tax cutters on the right. He's also blunt on immigration (against) and the right to die (for). In 1984 the latter came out as the "duty to die," a gaffe that "Governor Gloom" survived politically, though he later lost a Senate campaign.

Lamm is especially passionate on what he calls the "well-meaning Ponzi scheme" of entitlements: "Leona Helmsley and David Rockefeller get Medicare; 600,000 millionaires get social security . . ." Now he's in high dudgeon. "And the Democratic Party is blindly defending that! Medicare is not as bad off as the Republicans said -- it's much worse!" The facts bear him out. Medicare alone will produce trillion-dollar annual deficits in the next century. Without big changes, the government will consist of only four programs by the year 2029: Medicare, Medicaid, social security and federal pensions. Nothing else. No military, no judiciary, no national parks.

So of course we'll see big changes before the baby boomers start to retire in 2011. The question is whether the painful reckoning begins in 1996, 2000 or 2004. Why an election year? Because change of this magnitude can't begin without some kind of mandate, even a vague one. In his fine new book "The Return of Thrift," Phillip Longman argues that, in future elections, candidates who don't address entitlements will pay a steep political price. I'd go further and argue that with polls showing that more young Americans believe in UFOs than that social security will be there for them, political points can be scored this year by asserting that the system must change. Steve Forbes's boomlet showed that if you explain to voters that the problem is tomorrow's elderly, not today's needy seniors, entitlement reform can be a strong issue -- one that's less abstract than the deficit.

While Clinton scares the old folks with tales of Medicare cuts and Dole panders to them with promises to expand social-security tax-free income, who will tell the truth? Who will tell older voters that they get back from social security several times what they put in? Who will tell younger voters that their federal taxes will exceed 50 percent if the system isn't changed? The longer we wait, the harder it will be to manage the 50 Floridas of the future.

In 1896 the Populist Party under William Jennings Bryan was crushed at the polls, but within 20 years most of its platform was law. A century later Bill Clinton is angry at his old friend Dick Lamm. But he should hope to have Lamm or some other truthteller in the race, pushing him and Dole to face the real future. That may be the only way history regards either one as a president who mattered.