THIS was supposed to be a tough year for incumbents in the United States. But Tuesday's elections returned most of them to their accustomed spots in Congress. Did the returns show that the much analyzed anti-incumbency mood was only skin deep? Or did they mask a deep frustration with government that's likely to surface more forcibly in coming elections? Surveys just before the voting showed Americans harboring unusually negative views of those who hold office. In one poll, 73 percent said government is not to be trusted some or all of the time.
That feeling came through in some races, and may have been seen most clearly in the passage, in California and Colorado, of ballot initiatives to limit the terms of lawmakers.
Yet incumbency carried most candidates back into office, proving again that name recognition and superior fund-raising are a hard combination to beat. Most voters, despite anger at Washington's budget antics, didn't tie their complaints to their particular representative or senator. The Democrats' margin over Republicans widened slightly in Congress and remained unchanged in governorships.
Is disgust within the American electorate building to the point where more of the ``rascals'' are going to be thrown out? This could depend largely on how well a slipping economy does in the next two years.
Anger among voters can take other forms than anti-incumbency. With some exceptions, turnout was again low on Tuesday, suggesting that many of those negative feelings had curdled into cynicism - a perception that all choices were bad and voting makes little difference. This may say something about an electorate sated with TV campaign ads that slash at opponents, making everyone look bad.
Pressure should be brought on parties and candidates to clarify stands on important issues, not just shovel dirt at the opponent - and into the eyes of the public. Head-to-head debates free of journalistic questioners, such as those held between gubernatorial candidates in Massachusetts this year, shed more light for voters than a galaxy of 10-second ``spots.''
Congress should prove it's not a club for self-satisfied incumbents by pushing ahead with strong campaign-reform legislation when it reconvenes next year.
The voter disgruntlement evident during this year's election should be taken as a warning. Those stepping back into office ignore it at their risk.