HAVE long been convinced that most people who hold public office do so because they want to do their part to improve government - and think they have the ability to accomplish that goal. Most of them, too, I have found, are intelligent and honest. The bad apples are there - but they are the exception.
In the last few weeks I have had occasion to express this point of view to several groups of friends in the Midwest. They treated my thesis with kindness since they were friends. But they weren't buying. The polls clearly are right. The public has a very low opinion of public officials these days - particularly those in Washington.
How will this public dissatisfaction be expressed? Many of those I talked to had voted for Bill Clinton for president. Now, they said, they were going to vote Republican. This reflects a national voting trend. Since Mr. Clinton became president the Republicans have won special elections in both the House and the Senate, plus governors' races in New Jersey and Virginia and mayoral elections in New York and Los Angeles.
So it would appear that the Republicans are headed for some substantial gains in the congressional elections this fall. But how much? A GOP gain of 40 seats is needed for a takeover of the House. A pickup of 20 seats seems more realistic. In the Senate the Republicans need a gain of seven seats for Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas to become the majority leader. This is possible, but a GOP gain of three is more likely.
Why am I not more bullish on the Republicans in these races? It has to do with a feeling that voter unhappiness, while clearly there, doesn't reach the level of anger or desperation. There's no significant voter revolt brewing out there. There's enough dissatisfaction to fuel some decided Republican gains; but not enough to change party control of Congress.
More political observers are estimating that the Republicans could end up, after the November election, holding half of the governors' offices. That might even include Texas, Florida, and California. But, again, there doesn't seem to be enough genuine voter anguish to bring about that much of a GOP gubernatorial victory.
All the same there is no doubt that the Republicans will be improving their political position in this coming election. And if the result is only a relatively few gains, the effect could well be to slow the Clinton bandwagon almost to a halt. The president will call it gridlock and blame the Republicans. But he'll still have to go into his 1996 bid for reelection with little to show for his last two years in office.
Indeed, Clinton's highly energetic, almost frantic push to move legislation through Congress at this time is based on his view that the Congress elected this fall will be much less disposed to support his programs. Thus, he now appears to be willing to accept compromises on his beloved health-care initiative, knowing that now is the time for him to get the best deal possible.
That's why Clinton is also crowding the upcoming congressional agenda with crime and welfare-reform bills, along with health care. He sees stormy weather ahead.
Additionally, the congressional Democrats' reluctant agreement to deal with Whitewater is based on a theory that an enlarged Republican contingent in both Houses next year might make it more difficult to restrict the scope of the probe.
Actually, the Republicans don't really have to have the edge on numbers to take de facto control in Congress. Even now there are times when Republicans join with conservative Democrats to prevent Clinton from passing a program. Just a few gains in both Houses will add to the Republicans' ability to obstruct Clinton-sponsored legislation. So the president's fears for November are well founded.
The president and the Democrats could pick up steam before the elections, particularly if Clinton somehow is able to shepherd through Congress some health-care legislation that the public will view as effective and affordable. Just about everyone I talked to was very much in favor of such a program - if, indeed, it could be crafted.