PRIMARY voters in Massachusetts staged a revolt of sorts on Tuesday, opting for a pair of candidates who will try to outdo each other as outsiders bent on returning government to the people. Those now governing, to judge from the candidates' words, serve a bloated, inefficient state bureaucracy instead of the electorate. The conditions that led to wide margins of victory for Democrat John Silber and Republican William Weld were budgetary chaos, rising taxes, and a sagging regional economy. These conditions are not unique to Massachusetts, though this state has had a heaping share of all three - together with a mountain of disgruntlement stemming from Michael Dukakis's dismal 1988 run for the presidency.
The rumblings, at least, of similar revolts have been heard in other states like Connecticut, New Jersey, and California, whose voters share a disgust for legislative deadlock and marathon budget battles. Voters in some states, including California and Oklahoma, will have an opportunity this November to slap a limit of the number of terms legislators can serve - a clear, if overly sweeping, attempt to weed out perennial incumbents. With a recession creeping into view, the public's political inclinations could turn even more against longtime office holders.
But it would be a mistake to interpret the Massachusetts results, or those elsewhere, as a broad discontent with the institutions of government. Instead, voters are registering their protest against some current trends in government. Many people have the perception that even as the hunt for revenue intensifies, government services are delivered less efficiently. They're looking for candidates who want to retool the machinery of government, not dismantle it. When tax hike proposals have been framed in specific terms - as with the California ballot measure last June to raise money to address that state's gridlocked transportation system - they've often been successful. Voters know where the money is going.
It's well to remember, too, that the typical midterm reassessment of incumbents is at work this fall.
For now, we look forward to hearing more from Messrs. Weld and Silber, and other insurgents, on how they propose to ``take back our government.''