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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

America's Yeltsin 'takes it back'

People who have lived in Moscow for the past year or so will probably find it easier than most to comprehend the bizarre political phenomenon of H. Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who is now leading the opinion polls for the U. S. presidency. Think of George Bush as Mikhail Gorbachev, and of Perot as Boris Yeltsin, and the extraordinary political mood of election-year America suddenly becomes clear.


There is a difference in politics between being in office, like Gorbachev was and Bush still is, and being in power. For about a year before last year's Moscow coup, Gorbachev was in office as Soviet president without really being in power. His economic policies were not being carried out, his speeches and policy statements were barely heeded, and all the trappings of the Kremlin and the obedience of the armed forces could hardly disguise Gorbachev's lack of effective power.


To a less dramatic, but still unusual degree, that is the position of President George Bush today. Last week, the president announced that he would hold a formal press conference in the East Room of the White House at 8 P. M. television's prime time. The Big Three television networks said they would not bother to broadcast this event, which they said was more a party political appearance than a presidential event.


George Bush's budgets are sent up to Capitol Hill, where the Democratic majority in Congress effectively ignores them, drafts their own alternative budget, and sends them back down to the White House. Bush's only substantive political power today is his presidential right to veto any legislation, and that veto can be overridden by a two-thirds majority in Congress. So far, Bush has used his veto 30 times.


Since the Democrats control Congress, but do not have a two-thirds majority, the result has been a prolonged stalemate, while the U. S. economy has been through its longest depression since the 30's. This sense of gridlock in Washington, of political stagnation between a Republican White House and a Democratic Congress, has fuelled the extraordinary third-party campaign of Ross Perot. A self-made billionaire businessman, his can-do slogan "It's time to take out the trash and clean out the barn" addressed precisely the frustration of an electorate which fears that their political system is no long working.


But rather like Boris Yeltsin in the years before the Moscow coup, or at least in the months before Yeltsin was elected president of Russia, Perot currently has neither office nor power. In spite of the Los Angeles riots, we are unlikely to have the kind of coup or civic unrest that could inspire Ross Perot to leap aboard a tank and impose himself upon the political system. But then a man with a personal fortune of $3, 000 million, who has declared himself ready to spend $100 million or more to finance his election campaign, hardly needs the platform of a tank to catch the world's imagination.


There are some rather eerie parallels between America in this feverish election year and the old Soviet Union. The ring-road around Washington is known as The Beltway and "Inside the Beltway" has become the shorthand phrase for an American Kremlin, a remote and complacent political elite which does not really understand the depth of public disillusion outside. Like Brezhnev's old Kremlin, the Beltway seems consumed with global politics, nuclear weapons, arms sales and defence budgets, while the country seethes - and as in Los Angeles, occasionally explodes.


"Take it back, America", is Perot's slogan. and when this dissident billionaire is accused of using his money to buy the election, he insists: "I am buying it for the American people, because they can't afford it anymore", Rather like last August in Moscow, the public mood is too heady for many people to ask what Yeltsin/Perot will actually do with power once he has it. and Gorbachev/Bush is too discredited for many people to care about the implications of replacement.