Americans Searching For Government In Another Guise

LAST month, President Clinton's health-care initiative came listing back to port without delivering its promised cargo.

Some Washington watchers cite waves of pressure from special interests; others point to miscues by the president and his crew. But most agree that public opinion was also one of the major culprits.

The current American attitude toward the federal government, analysts say, is paradoxical. While voters want Congress to address social problems, they have little confidence in its ability to solve them.

''Despite a widespread desire for health-care reform, there was a great public aversion to a government-controlled plan,'' says Everett Carl Ladd, director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut.

In January, 83 percent of Americans polled by the Associated Press said the health-care system should be reformed. Six months later, an identical survey found 14 percent had apparently changed their minds.

Perhaps some of these voters were swayed by the insurance-industry TV commercials featuring ''Harry and Louise.'' But most experts say that once these voters got a taste of federal involvement, they lost their appetite for reform.

Gone, they say, is the kind of public confidence in government that spurred previous social programs, such as Lyndon Johnson's Great Society reforms.

''The fundamental difference between the public's reaction to health-care reform and it's reaction to President Johnson's Great Society is the skepticism about the role of the federal government,'' says Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. ''The public used to think that government could make a difference, now it's different. They don't want laissez faire, but they're skeptical.''

A 30-year study by the University of Michigan bears out Ms. Bowman's argument. Immediately following Lyndon Johnson's election in 1964, only 47 percent of respondents said the federal government wastes a lot of money.

By 1980, however, that figure had rocketed to a high of 78 percent, an unprecedented level of anti-Washington sentiment that helped sweep Ronald Reagan into the White House.

But this survey's most recent results illustrate today's public-opinion paradox. Although the perception that government is wasteful had fallen to 67 percent by President Clinton's election in 1992, responses to other questions showed that more voters than ever before believe that government is controlled by ''a few big interests looking out for themselves'' (76 percent), and that fewer Americans (only 26 percent) trust the federal government to do what is right most of the time.

According to Bowman, this conflicted mood showed up in spades in the health-care debate. She notes that polls taken as far back as the late 1930s show that Americans have always believed government should provide medical care for those who can't afford it. Yet this year's campaign collapsed, she says, because the public sensed the inception of another layer of federal bureaucracy.

''The Clinton health-care plan had broader goals in expanding government than LBJ would have ever imagined,'' Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas told the Monitor. ''Health care failed because the American people finally discovered that President Clinton was trying to remake the health-care system in the image of the post office.''

The only remaining advocates of the President's plan, Senator Gramm continues, are those lawmakers ''firmly committed to collectivism.''

Good government ignored

Yet supporters like Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois contend that the federal government has a solid track record of managing social change that most people simply take for granted. ''Even opponents of health-care reform don't want to get rid of social security,'' he says.

Senator Simon argues that the major health-care roadblock was not public apathy, but the ''huge impact'' of special interests. He says the administration was partly at fault for failing to sell the benefits of the plan to the public.

According to Joseph White, a health-care specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington, the president's push for national reform died on the vine even though it tried to satisfy both the public's demand for action, and its apprehension about government.

''As a general strategy, Clinton believes that government should make things happen, but not do them itself,'' Mr. White says. ''That's this administration's idea behind reinventing government.''

This moderate-to-conservative Democratic synthesis is reflected in Clinton's proposal for a system of managed care, White says, whereby private insurers would compete with each other to offer low-cost, high-quality insurance to large groups of buyers.

Clinton adopted this strategy, White says, because he believed its reliance on market forces - rather than government regulation - to control costs would be the least repellent option to a public wary of bureaucracy.

White says this compromise plan lost momentum because middle-class voters remained unconvinced that it would keep costs down or offer the same quality of care.

''Clinton's strategy itself says a lot about the forces at play,'' he says. ''Americans are of contradictory minds; they want government to do many things, but they also see it as overbearing and expensive.''

''Don't look for consistency of philosophy in anybody,'' says Lawrence Friedman, professor of history at Stanford University. People are strongly opposed to any kind of government interference, he says, but they want social programs like health care.

When asked about this dip in public confidence in the government's ability to enact broad reforms, Senator Simon attributes it to skepticism caused by events like Watergate and Vietnam, but also to political pandering driven by an increase in public-opinion polls.

''Polling is much more of a dominant factor in political life,'' he says. ''Instead of saying 'here are the problems and this is what we're going to do about it,' politicians are turning to the public and asking, 'well, what do you say?' That has an adverse effect on credibility.''

Steven Rosenstone, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, says he is deeply suspicious of polls about trust in government. One school of thought holds that such data doesn't reflect actual distrust, he says, as much as a mood shift that has made it ''fashionable'' to express it.

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