OFF-YEAR elections in the US often prove to be a themeless pudding. Lacking the central focus provided by a presidential contest, they tend to revolve around local candidates, issues, and conditions. On occasion, however, some big issue or event manages to impose a national structure on the disparate individual races. Contrary to prior expectations, it now seems that 1990 may be such a year. Throughout the spring and summer, most observers concluded that - while there was some general anti-incumbent feeling - candidates would win or lose largely on their own campaigns and local conditions. Reviewing a series of major races for the Public Perspective in August, National Journal correspondent James A. Barnes found no clear theme had yet emerged. One could see widespread voter unease over the economy but, Barnes wrote, ``there's no biting economic concern, like the recession of 1982, to galvanize resentment.''
Other matters on voters' minds, such as the S&L debacle, had not evolved to either party's advantage. ``Some sweeping issue may yet emerge and intrude itself in races across the country,'' Barnes recognized, but he could find no sign of that as of mid-August. He advised: ``... look to individuals, not issues, to determine November's outcomes.''
Over the past two months, however, voter sentiment appears in fact to have crystalized around a dominant concern. While it has several of distinct components, its focus overall involves the public's sense of governmental mismanagement in matters economic.
Polls now show very high proportions of the public complaining that they get poor value for their tax dollars in services rendered. It's often remarked that ``of course people never like taxes'' - but this really isn't true. We have ample survey evidence that large majorities want a wide range of government services and benefits, and recognize that they must pay for them. It's no more accurate that Americans don't like taxes than to say they don't like to pay for new cars or TV sets. The issue in each instance is: Am I paying a fair price for the value rendered? When the answer is no, protests build. Increasingly, it's no with regard to government services.
The victory of John Silber, and the extent of voters' repudiation of the state's Democratic establishment in last month's Massachusetts primary, surprised many analysts. But enormous public frustration over perceived government malperformance has been evident for the past year. Polls show an important new wrinkle in the public's belief that government wastes a lot of their tax dollars. This is, as Gerry Chervinsky of KRC Communications Research puts it, that ``over two-thirds of Massachusetts voters believe their state government is an overblown bureaucracy, out of touch with the constituents it serves.''
Concern over government spending has been fueled by the continuing growth of the total tax take. Over the 1980s, for all the talk of Reagan tax cuts, government revenue - local, state, and federal - climbed as a percentage of the country's gross national product from about 34 percent of GNP in 1980 to 37 percent in 1989. A new round of increases this year in many states and now, seemingly, in federal taxes, coming on top of this steady progression, has sparked resentment. Polls show resentment sharp among low and lower-middle income voters - groups that now feel especially burdened.
Issues such as the fairness and economic merits of the tax and spending package agreed to early this week by the Bush administration and congressional leaders will be debated vigorously. But whatever the strength of the contending views on these matters, the political impact is almost certain to be a further heightening of voter frustration over government's fiscal management.
With the Republicans controlling the White House and the Democrats both houses of Congress, and with leaders on both sides backing the new package, a plainly unhappy public will find it hard to know whom to blame on Nov. 6.
Nonetheless, voters' dissatisfaction is now high enough that many are likely to cast their ballots next month to send a protest message on the issue of government fiscal management. In so doing they may well rewrite the political agenda for the next two years.