IN the past month a new political genre of truth-telling has come on the American scene. It is given voice not only by respected senators such as Warren Rudman, John Danforth, Patrick Moynihan, and former Sen. Paul Tsongas - but by mid-level officials and ordinary citizens.
This new discussion is welcomed, though it signifies a demand to make hard choices, face tough realities, and correct past mistakes. Mr. Tsongas says America is losing out to Germany and Japan and must become competitive in cutting-edge industry. The departing Warren Rudman says deficits, specifically entitlement spending, are out of control in Congress. John Danforth on the Senate floor last month said: "This is the first generation in the history of the country that has wanted to take more out of it th an it is given."
Such statements and sentiments are not simply political harangues, or an "opening" to seize and score points. They represent sober assessments by moderate leaders in both parties.
Add to them a jeremiad on the New York Times op-ed page last month, "Our Do-Nothing Government," written anonymously by a 10-year veteran of the Reagan and Bush administrations. The official questioned White House assumptions that market forces alone naturally promote good government and solve problems. They don't, he says. Just the opposite: "By design or default, almost every Federal agency has been guilty ... of moving only in accordance with a political reaction to an event - not a moment before and not an inch beyond what is needed to quiet things down."
This truth-telling comes amid - and partly because of - voter anger and a suddenly sour mood in Washington about public service and government itself. Some 50 to 100 Senate and House members may throw in the towel this year, including Colorado Sen. Tim Wirth. Partly this is due to redistricting and a deadline allowing departing House members to keep campaign "war chests." But many are tired of being demonized by voters who don't realize the pressures of office.
Responsible criticism needs to be valued and acted upon - not become an excuse for irresponsible anger and a trashing of institutions. The danger is that the idea of government itself will be devalued. One does not reform government by attacking it.
Leadership is crucial. In a year of "truth-telling," Democratic presidential front-runner Bill Clinton has a perceived integrity gap to overcome. President Bush faces similar scrutiny. Last year he said domestic issues "bored" him; now he bills himself a domestic reformer whose priority is suddenly "education" again.