Polling-Booth Anger

`VOTER anger" has become the defining phrase of the 1992 presidential race.

The upset Tuesday by challenger Jerry Brown in Connecticut over front-runner Bill Clinton concretely makes the point.

Voters are clearly frustrated and ready for change. When an incumbent president gets only 65 percent of the vote in South Dakota running against no one, everyone notices. Both Democrat Brown, running against corruption and entrenched interests in Washington, and Republican Pat Buchanan, whose message is George Bush's betrayal of the "Reagan revolution," base their candidacies on an insurgent strategy of "tapping" voter anger.

Now the voice of can-do Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot is heard in the land. If called to the presidency by a groundswell of protest, Mr. Perot says he will clean the Augean stables of Washington and put America back on a responsible financial basis. Perot's ideas have power, but his methods, honed by a lone-ranger-style corporate independence, may not fit in a democracy.

Still, Perot articulates the dimensions of voter anger: "Can we agree that going $4 trillion into debt [since 1980] did not create utopia?" he asks. He correctly calls the body politic to task for accepting too long an ethic of getting something for nothing. He slams US political leaders for saying whatever it takes to be elected, while abdicating responsibility for future generations.

In this sense, voter anger reflects the American dilemma in the early 1990s. At a superficial level it may be anger at the discomfort of a recession. But at a deeper level it points to an entire range of unresolved issues: the feeling government is out of control and wasting money; a distrust of officials who aren't, in Paul Tsongas's words, "telling the truth"; a sense of diminished expectation in the American dream; a fear for personal safety; a suspicion the civic and moral compass in society is haywi re; uncertainty about the future; and unease at a new and corrosive cynicism.

That cynicism will not be helped if candidate handlers and media spin-controllers merely exploit voter anger - that's the very kind of manipulation and hypocrisy voters are angry about!

Voter anger is no real answer. Nor is a knee-jerk move to "throw the rascals out." America has a unique opportunity over the next seven months to mature politically. Change will take time. Voters must wake up to the dilemma at hand and recognize their own role in putting the country in better ethical and financial order.

Anger does show some waking up is occurring. Now the other 80 percent of Americans - those who aren't voting - must wake up, too.

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