Forecast: A Winter Of Public Discontent

Voters say Washington has neglected domestic concerns. US POLITICS

AMERICA'S political mood has turned sour on the eve of the 1992 presidential campaign.The nation's voters, who feel forgotten by their globe-trotting leaders in Washington, say they are fed up with their government - a troublesome turn-of-events for President Bush and the Democratic Congress. The economy is part of it. Blue-collar workers are finding it hard to get work in the auto industry, in electronics, in construction. White-collar workers are being axed in the aerospace business, in banking, in engineering. Many recent college graduates can't find jobs even at cut-rate wages. But the problem runs much deeper, involving a wide array of social and moral concerns. Voters are frustrated by unsafe streets, poorly performing schools, homelessness, drugs, corruption, and check-bouncing congressmen. Deep down, many Americans believe government has lost touch with them. They think Washington is run by special interests, who control Congress and the executive branch with favors and campaign contributions which subvert the democratic system. All this has begun to damage the image of elected officials. As one Pennsylvania voter last month told a focus group conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling organization: "I just think the American people are losing faith in their leaders. Their leaders aren't leaders anymore, they're a bunch of crooks and shysters and they tell you one thing and mean another." Such anger, which has spread to the middle class, has begun to reach the ballot box. It has fed the David Duke phenomenon in Louisiana, where the former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan may be elected governor this month because he has found a way to verbalize public frustration. It could also manifest itself today in Pennsylvania, where a friend of President Bush, former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, is battling for his political life in a race for the United States Senate. By capitalizing on public anger toward Washington, Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford has overcome most of Mr. Thornburgh's 44-point lead in that race in less than three months. The questions now are: Will the president's own personal popularity be hurt, despite his historic successes in foreign policy? And will a greater number of congressional incumbents be defeated next year? Pollsters say there's evidence that both could happen. They report that from February to October, the number of Americans who believed the country was headed in the right direction plunged from 58 percent to just 29 percent, according to the most recent survey by Public Opinion Strategies (POS). Meanwhile, the number of voters who say the country is on the "wrong track" rose from 26 percent in March to 60 percent in October. In a two-part study running this week, the Washington Post finds that the number of Americans who trust the federal government to "do what is right" has fallen from 78 percent in 1964 to only 36 percent today. The current levels are as bad as the Watergate years. There is a clear warning in all of this for Bush, who likes to be known as the "education president" and the "environmental president." Words are not enough. After years of failure, the public now says that elected leaders merely want to "appear" to solve problems, not really resolve them. Voter skepticism now has begun to impact the White House. The president's approval numbers, once at 90 percent after the Persian Gulf war, have gradually declined. In July, 70 percent of Americans said they liked the way Bush was handling his job. By October, that was down to 64 percent, according to POS surveys. The number of Americans willing to vote for Bush's reelection also is falling. It was 55 percent in July and 51 percent in October. Republican pollster Neil Newhouse says he expects the numbers to dip soon to the mid-40s. Focus groups run by POS in Pennsylvania last month reveal why voters are turning away from the president. One focus group member put it this way: "President Bush, stay away from foreign affairs a bit more and get back to domestic policies and bring some of the money back here." Congress, controlled by the Democrats, also comes under fire. Pollster Glen Bolger says the reelect numbers for members of Congress "are much softer than we have ever seen before down 10 to 12 points for the typical congressman. In the Northeast, where the economy has suffered badly, the popularity of Congress has slipped even more, with some congressmen off 15 to 19 points. This seems part of a trend. During most of the 1980s, the public had a positive view of Congress. But since 1989, disapproval of Congress has hovered in the 50 to 60 percent range, moving up to 64 percent in October. Some analysts predict that if the disapproval rates stay high, 1992 could see an unusually large number of early retirements from Congress, more hotly contested races, and some surprising defeats. The White House clearly is worried by all of this. Late last week, the president struck back at critics who claim he spends too much time on foreign policy. "We live in an integrated world," he told a $1,000-a-plate fund-raiser in Houston. "In that world, you can't neatly divide foreign policy from domestic policy." But back in Washington, there were reports of a verbal brawl between congressional Republicans and White House officials in the Cabinet room over lack of attention to domestic policy. Some Republicans argued that unless the administration acts, Demo-crats could hurt the president and the GOP. People in Pennsylvania would agree. As one focus-group member said: "The president needs to pay more attention at home." Another suggested: "The US needs to quit giving out money to every foreign country with its hand out."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.