The Right Way, or the Beltway, to Change?

WASHINGTON, like the rest of the country, is preoccupied with change.

Now there's the move to simplify taxes, growing in intensity with every day. For example, House minority leader Dick Gephardt dropped by for breakfast and conversation with the Monitor group the other day and devoted an hour to detailing a plan that, essentially, reshapes the present income tax in a way that is intended to provide relief to the middle-income group while putting a heavier load on the wealthy.

Mr. Gephardt raps House majority leader Dick Armey's flat-tax plan, charging that it lacks the humanitarian element of ''progressivity.'' Mr. Armey met with our group two days later to defend his proposal, pointing to a provision that there would be no tax on the first $36,500 in income for a family of four.

The president has looked at Gephardt's plan and said some nice things about it. But he has stopped short of adopting it as his own. In fact, Mr. Clinton may or may not come up with a tax-reform proposal - even though it is getting a little late in the day for the president to enter this important debate.

We should remember that Bill Clinton became president largely because he promised to bring about change. He tried mightily to reform the health system - and failed. Since then, and since the Republicans took over Congress, Clinton has been reacting to GOP initiatives more than providing leadership. Maybe he has no other course. No doubt about it: Gingrich and Dole and company have become the agents of change in Washington. And have they been stirring up the dust! Clinton now threatens some vetoes. But throwing roadblocks won't restore the initiative to the president.

Clinton still can assert leadership in foreign affairs. So it is in that area of action that the president was able to show some strength last week when he made the difficult decision to normalize relations with Hanoi.

He seemed, to many, the wrong person to make that decision. He had opposed the Vietnam War when he was young and had done some questionable maneuvering to stay out of uniform. Many Americans also remained opposed to opening diplomatic ties with Vietnam because they believed that country wasn't giving full cooperation in accounting for all Americans missing in action.

Yet it was because Clinton was willing to brave this tide of criticism that he looked so presidential in the move. Right or wrong, Clinton looked as if he was in charge. And certainly no one can argue that he wasn't in this instance the agent of change - international change.

Finally, there's a welling up of public unhappiness with the way we elect our presidents that exceeds anything I've seen in the past. More than ever, people want a change. Yes, every four years you hear people grumbling about excessive, inequitable campaign spending and the long, long campaign.

It was evident that both the president and the Speaker are sensitive to this growing desire for campaign reform when they met recently in New Hampshire. Indeed, they said they would do something about it pronto. And then they shook hands over it. Well, they better not forget that people all over the United States were watching that agreement on TV. Voters didn't think that was just a ceremonial handshake.

And then there's this never-ending presidential campaign that really got under way shortly after the 1994 election. I've never seen so many candidates going into the primary states so early in their quest for support. It's needless, it's expensive, and most of all, it's boring. I think public resistance to the overlong campaign is surfacing as it never has before. Change, I hope, is finally going to happen or - shades of baseball this year - the public is going to sit these campaigns out. Indeed, that is already beginning to happen.

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