Me-First Politics

A NEW nationwide poll, just seven weeks before state and congressional elections, shows American voters ``angry, self-absorbed, and politically unanchored.'' Voters are hostile toward immigrants, cynical toward government, suspicious of the media, and uninspired by either major party, says the survey by the Times-Mirror organization. Over half those polled say the United States should have a third political party; 20 percent would like to join it.

The findings reinforce the possibility that this will be a watershed political year in which some old political assumptions will be thrown out.

A chief one is the power of incumbency. When voters are disillusioned with government, the advantage of office greatly diminishes.

Tuesday's primary defeat of Rep. Mike Synar (D) of Oklahoma may not be the archetype for November, however. Mr. Synar's liberal views were out of step with his constituents; he was vulnerable in any political climate. Despite the sour voter mood, Synar was only the third incumbent to lose his party's nomination during the primaries. While it's true that voters are fed up with ``pork,'' the wasteful spending of their tax dollars, when the spending occurs in their own state or congressional district it often transforms into ``getting our fair share.'' Me-first politics says: Take away your pork, give me mine.

No greater test of incumbency will occur than in Massachusetts, where Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) stands even in polls with GOP neophyte Mitt Romney. Mr. Kennedy has played an impressive role on the national and international scene while protecting his state's interests in Congress. Sadly, the closeness of the race, along with a new group of advisers, has him preparing to launch negative ads aimed at discrediting his opponent, a departure from his past ``high road'' campaigns.

Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) of New York, Sen. James Sasser (D) of Tennessee (who hopes to become Senate majority leader), and House Speaker Thomas Foley are among other prominent incumbents on the ropes.

The next several weeks of campaigning hold more-than-usual significance for off-year elections. By running against the political status quo, Republicans have a legitimate chance of winning majorities in both houses of Congress, as well as a majority of governors' offices.

If successful, they will face a harder task: satisfying an electorate more convinced of what it doesn't want than what it does.

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