Perot: Plalying Both Sides Badly

IF CONSISTENCY IS THE hob-goblin of small minds, no one could accuse Ross Perot of lacking brainpower. over the course of the NAFTA controversy, he has offered contradictory comments on issues ranging from free trade to his lobbying pursuits. Last week's televised debate with Vice President Al Gore proved no exception. By the end of the 90-minute face-of, the question on many viewers' minds was: "Is Perot playing both sides of the fence?" Some examples:

While Perot has said he supports free trade, his proposal for a system of "social tariffs" seemed to destroy it. To prevent poor countries from exploiting their low wages in trade deals, Perot suggested that a tariff be imposed at the U.S. border that would completely offset the country's wage advantage over the United States. But the tariffs would have to be huge--Mexican wages are one fifth to one twentieth those of the United States--and could well amount to several hundred percent. As a practical matter, such charges would cripple or flatly bar all existing exports from Mexico and more than 130 other developing countries into the U.S. market.

On the issue of lobbying, Perot wins the pot-calling-the-kettle-black award for 1993. He scored points in the debate by accusing others of the practice, having become a master of the art of lobbying himself. In 1975, for instance, Perot engaged former IRS commissioner Sheldon Cohen as a go-between with the House Ways and Means Committee. Cohen told The Wall Street Journal that he drafted and then helped lobby a tax provision through the committee that would have saved Perot $15 million in taxes. Perot had earlier made $27,400 in campaign contributions to 12 members of the committee. Perot has insisted that the tax measure benefited others besides himself. But publicity over his windfall killed the provision on the House floor.

Perot earlier denied that he had any interest in the Alliance Airport in Ft. Worth, Texas, but backpedaled during the debate. He admitted sharing ownership in the facility with his son, Ross Jr., but correctly pointed out, above Gore's objections, that the airport would not benefit if NAFTA dies. The Perots have gotten massive--but perfectly legal--federal and local government help in building their 4,500-acre airport complex. It is, in effect, their own private airport. They own all the land around the 9,600-foot government-built runway. Indeed, they are actually seeking $137.8 million more in federal funding to extend the runway--a ruling on the matter from the Department of Transportation is overdue. Contrary to Gore's accusations, however, Perot's campaign against NAFTA probably damages, rather than helps, his interests.

Even when the numbers are on his side, Perot pushes his case beyond the facts: while slamming the moneymen behind the pro-NAFTA fight, he has waffled about how much he is spending on his quest. Gore taunted him about the matter repeatedly, after Perot attacked the huge sums being spent to promote the agreement. A spokesperson for United We Stand, America, the Perot grass-roots organization, set the figure at $2.3 million, "which is still a lot less than the $65 million our opponents spent, I might point out," she said.

Perot's arguments all play on understandable fears of American workers that change may displace them. But his own son and most of his other top business executives support NAFTA on the ground that freer trade creates more ohs on every side of the border. Perot himself, in fact, was once a NAFTA supporter. In the end, however, the consistency of his views may not matter much to his loyal followers. If NAFTA is defeated this week, his prickly demeanor during the debate could make his stock soar even higher with the some 10 million bluecollar workers who voted for him in the last election. "They accept on faith that free trade hurts them," says a source close to the plain-spoken billionaire. "Ross is throwing them raw meat."