Voters Engineered Political Deadlock

DEMOCRATS hailed the results of last November's balloting as promising an end to "political gridlock." Recently, though, President Clinton and others in the party have been bemoaning the persistence of policy deadlock and blaming the Republicans for it.

In a way they are right that "the forces of gridlock" are still ascendant. The budget bill expected to clear Congress this week shows just how much today's politics resembles that of the recent past - such as the deal that yielded the budget agreement in 1990.

In both instances the legislation emerged only after prolonged bargaining and compromise and was a product no one really wanted. This year's end result is being called the "Clinton budget plan," but that's as misleading as calling the 1990 legislation the "Bush plan." Though the partisan balance is different now, Mr. Clinton's original proposals have been disregarded as much as President Bush's preferences were three years ago.

Congress has always been dominated by horse trading and compromise, and with very few exceptions it has given presidents legislative output considerably different from what they had sought. But this really doesn't explain the deep policy deadlock in American government.

Clinton and his advisers made a huge miscalculation when they assumed that a majority of the public wanted, or would accept, a new era of more activist government. Much evidence indicates otherwise, beginning with the election results themselves. Fifty-seven percent of voters backed either the Republican incumbent or a billionaire businessman who said the country was being ruined by wasteful, inefficient government.

What's more, a mountain of polling data shows that while a majority had lost confidence in Mr. Bush's leadership in domestic affairs, and after 12 years of GOP control of the presidency was in a mood for "change," the public was in no sense prepared to support a substantial expansion of government. Rather, key underlying attitudes that had ushered in the Reagan era were still in place, including the belief that government was doing a poor job in terms of value delivered for dollars spent.

Yet Clinton acted as though he saw a window open, at least briefly, for a host of new initiatives. Taxes and spending could be raised substantially in the name of creating conditions that would "grow the economy," and within 100 days a sweeping new health-care system could be designed and introduced.

Action on much of this has been stymied for lack of public backing. Republicans have been unusually united in opposing Clinton's budget proposals, in part because all factions of the party disagree with the president on these matters, but also because he gave them such an attractive target. Those inclined to dismiss the polls or emphasize findings that appear to be at odds with the ones I have summarized have to contend with the small but impressive string of by-election results that have gone against th e administration.

Democrats have just managed to hang on to seats that had been safely theirs, lost in places where they had almost never lost, or been beaten by an unprecedented margin.

For example, in the June 5 Senate run-off election in Texas, Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison swamped interim-appointment incumbent Democrat Bob Krueger by an extraordinary 67-33 percent margin. And in the July 27 special election for lieutenant governor in Arkansas, Republican Mike Hickabee beat former Clinton aide Nate Coulter by 51-49 percent.

Something other than a reaction to early administration bumbling is at work here. A judgment on policy is being rendered.

Still, Americans aren't in any sense uniformly hostile to government initiatives. They continue to insist that public problems be addressed. For two decades this deep-seated tension has dominated Americans' political outlook - on the one hand widespread belief that government has grown too much and often performs poorly, and, on the other, strong demands to "do something." This produces a very special type of political deadlock.

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