There is a specter haunting America: the specter of a saner, updated version of Ross Perot. He is lurking out there, ready to ride the free-floating anger and distrust of Washington. He is out there now in one of his homes or private jets, getting madder by the day. He is large of ego, full of money and cranky in mien.
When he enters the arena, he'll say that Washingtonians, all of them, are a bunch of failures. Over the past five years, Washington has tried to reform Social Security, immigration, health care and energy policy. All of these efforts have either failed or are close to failure — thousands of people working millions of hours and in all likelihood producing nothing.
He'll point out that Washingtonians, all of them, breed selfishness. Republicans refuse to accept tax increases. Democrats reject spending cuts. They've put the country on a highway to a fiscal crisis, and there are no exit ramps.
When he comes, he'll present himself warts and all. Yes, I'm an obnoxious SOB, he'll say. But you need me right now. Yes, I am a blank slate, but people are so desperate that they're voting for blank slates. When he comes — this billionaire Simon Cowell, this political Bobby Knight — he will change the political landscape, at least for a time.
If I were one of those fellows advising Barack Obama, I would tell him that you can either get run over by that saner Ross Perot or you can be the saner Ross Perot. You're not ornery, but you are a bit of a loner. You're not a billionaire with a huge ego, but that's because you're not that rich. God gave you self-esteem. You might as well use it for good.
First, I would say, you need to distance yourself from the status quo. You need to detach from the Old Bull committee chairmen you foolishly affixed yourself to in your first year. You need to detach from all those deals with pharmaceutical lobbyists and earmark champions. You need to detach yourself from Washington's ping-pong match of ideological overreach — as each party interprets victory as a mandate to grab everything.
You made a good start in the State of the Union address, I would tell him. In that speech, you began to reclaim the mantle of the permanent outsider.
First, you distanced yourself from the Democratic orthodoxy. You embraced some traditional Democratic policies, but also an eclectic grab bag of other policies that play well with independents: a spending freeze that excluded defense, nuclear power, offshore drilling, the elimination of a capital gains tax on small business, a fiscal commission, free trade deals and earmark reform.
Second, you distanced yourself from the old debates. You sidestepped the whole big-government-versus-small-government question. Instead of doing the liberal-people-versus-the-powerful shtick, you emphasized targeted tax cuts, deficit reduction and community bank subsidies.
Third, you distanced yourself from Washington morality. At times the speech was like a vice principal's lecture to an unruly middle school classroom. You scolded Democrats and Republicans about excessive partisanship, pettiness and insider-dealing. You cast yourself as the sole coolheaded man in Gomorrah.
In short, you made it clear that you will not be going down with the congressional Titanic. You took a few steps toward recapturing your image as the last thoughtful reformer. Now you have to embrace that role with a vengeance.