The Public's Uncertain Verdict

NEVER in modern times has the American electorate rendered as confused and contradictory a decision as it did last Tuesday. The confusion and contradictions came because, while voters had been persuaded that change was needed, they had no sense programatically of what the change should be, and no clear idea of where to turn among the candidates.

Throughout the year the public was told repeatedly that the United States economy was in shambles. The Democrats made this case as part of the normal strategy of the out-of-power party to convince voters that change was needed. More tellingly, the same case was made by much of the press and by a supposedly neutral and disinterested independent candidate for president, Ross Perot. Political insiders knew that Mr. Perot was intensely hostile to President Bush and was determined to bring him down. But most voters saw only a plain-spoken businessman, a "self-made" billionaire, who was spending millions of his own money to sound, Paul Revere like, the alarm that America's collapse is coming fast.

Perot is nothing if not a good salesman, and his selling of this story was instrumental in Mr. Bush's defeat. The final results make it virtually certain Bush would have won if Perot had not campaigned as he did.

Long before Perot launched his unprecedented electronic candidacy, a great many Americans had become convinced that "politics as usual" isn't working well. But they are entirely unsure what to do about it.

Much of the public hasn't gotten beyond two central, unreconciled, judgments: (1) that Congress isn't working well and that the prevailing system advantages entrenched interests; (2) that, at the same time, most voters want to "vote for the man" (or the woman), rather than make a conscious effort to alternate party control over Congress so as to make it responsible.

Much of the public is frustrated with a system it sees as out of control. But it will remain out of control until voters come to understand that the only way to make it responsible is to give one party a chance to govern, and then to kick it out when it is seen to perform inadequately.

Perot's quest, if supported, could only increase the public's frustrations. Electing as president someone who had no base of support in either house of Congress could only fragment government further and make it harder to hold anyone responsible for failure.

The public has said it wants "change." Here, however, it means nothing more specific than that it wants a more vibrant economy. Who doesn't? The only issue, of course, is how to get it. The public has no clear judgment. A decisive majority of those polled by the networks' survey consortium as they left their voting stations on Tuesday said emphatically that more government isn't the answer. Asked whether they preferred government "providing more services but costing more in taxes," or government "costi ng less in taxes but providing fewer services," 54 percent chose the latter. Only 38 percent wanted to pay more to get more from the state.

The US electorate said much on Tuesday to indicate it wanted government scaled back. In all 14 states where term limits for members of Congress were on the ballot, majorities endorsed them. Term limits are a means - however well-advised - of checking or restraining governmental power. In the same fashion the extraordinarily high 19 percent of the popular vote given to Perot attests to a desire to rein in government and make it more responsive. It also attests to the impact of lavish spending from a perso nal fortune, in an age of weak party ties and TV-dominated campaigning.

Even though he muted his call for more governmental "investment," Bill Clinton managed only 43 percent of the popular vote, 5 points more than Bush received, 14 points less than the proportion recorded for the two candidates who urged curbs on government's reach.

It's being said that a weak economy elected Mr. Clinton as the country's 42nd president. It's closer to the mark, though, to say that the perception of a failing economy gave the Democrat his 5-point margin in the popular vote and his mixed verdict with regard to Congress - a one-seat gain in the Senate and a loss of about 10 Democratic seats in the House. And it's closer still to say that a widespread uncertainty on how to restrain the state allowed a candidate who favors a bigger governmental role to c arry the day.

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