While Washington improves, public remains cynical on politicians

AMERICAN voters are so cynical about Congress that, in one organized discussion with Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, participants insisted their congressman had not managed to get a bridge repaired even though they had just driven across it.

In some ways, these are unlikely times for Washington bashing - for heaping scorn on the nation's elected officials.

Gridlock? Laws are being passed at a rate unmatched since the Eisenhower administration.

Scoundrels in office? The people elected to Congress are, in general, smarter and more honest than ever, avers Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and longtime Washington insider and observer.

Hard times? More like middling times. Wages are not rising, but the economy is growing reasonably well.

Bad press? ``In many ways, the press is also better than it has ever been,'' says Mr. Hess, who has studied the subject.

Yet the men and women who are now tackling the biggest-ticket social legislation in decades - health-care reform - are working in an atmosphere of deep public cynicism and contempt toward them and their work.

Recent polls confirm that disapproval of Congress is at the same low level that led in 1992 to the largest congressional turnover since the 1930s. At the same time, President Clinton's approval rating is between 40 and 50 percent, with nearly a third of those polled strongly disapproving of his performance.

Perceived inaction

Ms. Lake has found that when voters are asked whether Congress has passed reform bills that they have, in fact, passed, voters are inclined to say that they did not.

Not that these voters are uncertain about it either. They insist that they have been paying attention and that Congress did not act. Even when persuaded otherwise, the voters tend to brush off congressional action as phony or ineffectual.

``There's a powerful, new political reality at work,'' says David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation and a former secretary of health, education, and welfare in the Ford administration. ``It's different from the old antigovernment attitude, and more powerful.

In meeting with civic groups around the country, Mr. Mathews hears citizens saying of Congress that ``these people don't seem to be leading the same lives that we lead. They don't seem to follow the same rules. I know good people go in. But the system seems to get them.''

``People feel more out of touch, more distant, from elected officials than ever before,'' says Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who worked for Ross Perot's presidential campaign.

As a Republican, he might be expected to downgrade a Democratic-controlled president, House, and Senate. But Rep. Tim Penny, a Minnesota Democrat who is not running for reelection after 12 years in the House, holds a similar view: ``We are isolated. Most people come here for the right reasons and believe we're doing the right things. It bothers us that we're held in such contempt.''

``We're making the mistake,'' he says, ``of equating how hard we work with [getting] something done.''

Broken relations

``The whole nature of the relationship between citizens and the government is broken,'' sums up Richard Harwood, who runs a company that advises on how to engage the public in civic issues. Very little in modern national politics, he says, is ``authentic anymore.''

So how did it come to this?

One of the leading complaints of citizens is the fierce partisanship in Washington, which many tend to see as self-serving and unproductive. ``People don't have the sense that we're working together,'' Mr. Penny says.

This is part of a larger complaint about the conduct of politics today. Penny says political rhetoric is full of ``blatant hypocrisy: It permeates the way we talk about every issue from crime to the deficit, to health care.'' Campaigns themselves are increasingly woven from attack ads, sound-bite slogans, and opinion polling, he notes.

``Instead of speaking to people's better nature, we're running campaigns that speak to their worst fears,'' Penny says. And while politics is closely tapped into public opinion in the off-the-top-of-the-head sense measured by opinion surveys, he says, politicians are not well-connected to what people really think.

For example, many people might tell a pollster they would be willing to pay more to achieve universal health-insurance coverage, he says. ``But in reality, most families would say: `I can't afford to pay another dime to the government when I don't like what I'm getting now.'''

From opinion surveys to the television events currently called ``town meetings,'' much of politics is manipulative and sales-oriented rather than honest deliberation over civic issues, Mr. Harwood says. Political debates, for example, usually contain more posturing and one-upmanship than any seeking of common ground.

The deep roots of today's attitudes were planted early this century, when the Progressive movement began replacing the often-corrupt politics of patronage and party bosses with a more professional and efficient concept of government. This began the era of elite policy experts that still holds sway. The message to citizens is: ``Leave the driving to us.''

While a larger share of the nation's business was being concentrated far away - in Washington - the places where people gathered information and deliberated issues grew fewer. ``The town meetings faded and the porches got screened in,'' Mathews says.

The estrangement between Americans and their government came in a series of steps.

As Lake describes them, the civil rights era and Vietnam war began to tell large numbers of Americans that ``Washington was acting on behalf of someone else, not me.'' The Watergate scandal told Americans that the government was also corrupt. The bailout of savings-and-loan depositors was seen as a massive handout to a special-interest group, telling Americans that Washington served those who contributed to campaigns.

Finally, the House bank scandal and congressional pay raise told Americans that the elites elected to office were ultimately serving themselves.

None of these messages would have been very powerful if they hadn't often come alongside economic pressures on people - such as the long stagnation of wages since the middle 1970s.

Defenders of the established order, from congressional leaders to some of the very knowledgeable observers at the Brookings Institution, are often skeptical that voters are as cynical as painted. They always show far higher approval of their own representatives in Congress than for the Congress as a whole, for example.

The closer one is to Washington, Hess says, the more positive people's views tend to be. Most members of Congress and most senior federal bureaucrats, after all, are hard-working and talented people.

And even in the 1830s, the French observer of the American experiment Alexis de Tocqueville noted that, in relatively calm times, political partisanship grew meaner and more petty.

Forgotten citizenship

If Americans don't like what they're getting from Washington these days, they come in for some blame themselves. ``People have become consumers,'' Harwood says. ``They don't think of themselves as citizens.''

When politicians do the right thing and face up to hard issues with hard answers, Penny says, ``the public has to cut the serious legislators a little slack.''

The way out will not be quick. The first step, according to Lake, is to get some things done, such as health care. It would also help, she says, if Congress would pass bills in a form that people can understand, instead of in big omnibus packages.

Mr. Luntz says Washington needs to return more power, authority, and control to the states, where it's closer to the people. Another massive turning out of incumbents from Congress this year would help, he says.

Penny sees hope in a large crop of new members who may join with the large freshman class in the current Congress to straighten out many of the rules and procedures surrounding the running of Congress and campaigns.

Americans feel they voted in 1992 for change and to put the national interest foremost, Lake says, and if they don't see better results they will not be happy.

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