November Elections May Show New Conservativism

IN the stretch run of Campaign '94, prognostications are of a partisan outcome. Most analysts expect the Republicans to gain in the 435 House of Representatives, 34 Senate, and 36 gubernatorial contests. But in our federal system where local issues, conditions, and personalities loom large, it's hard to get a reading this far before the balloting.

It seems American politics has taken another turn, this one confounding assessments made two years ago. At that time Americans, after giving the Republicans a long stay in the White House, supposedly wanted to shift in a liberal direction. Clinton's election was seen as a turn toward more expansive and activist government. While plausible in November 1992, that interpretation now seems wrong. Americans wanted change - but its direction remains generally conservative.

This conservatizing move is most evident on role-of-government issues. For some time now research has shown the public becoming increasingly sour in its assessments of government's performance and costs. Dissatisfaction with government is at its highest point in 60 years.

Public response on health-care reform illustrates how skeptical about governmental performance a majority has become. As the debate proceeded and the government-centered nature of the reforms became better known, opposition grew faster than most expected. Work at the Roper Center shows how decisive the public's ``no'' to the Clinton plan has been. By July 1994, 61 percent were saying in a Yankelovich Partners poll that they thought the administration's approach would increase the amount they would have to pay for medical care. Only 21 percent thought their medical costs would remain the same; 9 percent thought costs would decrease. In this same survey, 44 percent concluded that ``if health-care reform is passed'' the overall quality of ``health care available to you'' will get worse; just 15 percent thought it would get better.

As the health-care debate proceeded, the political balance relating to it shifted. Surveys show each political party having certain areas where its performance is preferred. The Republicans generally receive good marks on management of the economy and foreign affairs, while the Democrats have been seen as stronger on service-delivery issues.

At the beginning of the debate, twice as many Americans said the Democrats do better with health-care policy than do the Republicans. But in the latest Gallup survey, that advantage had disappeared. ``Take more time on the issue'' of health care has replaced ``legislate something now'' as the predominant public sentiment. Asked by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal in a late-July survey whether ``Congress should pass a health-care reform bill this year, or continue to debate the issue and act next year,'' only 34 percent wanted action now.

The public's decision on health care is important in and of itself. But it's also a striking example of a broad shift in public sentiment - involving diminishing confidence in ``more government'' as the answer to the nation's problems.

The slow but steady drift in a conservative direction can be seen, too, on various social questions such as how to handle the country's disturbingly high rate of crime. My colleague George Pettinico points this out nicely in an article in The Public Perspective on survey data showing that, at the beginning of the 1970s, a huge majority of the public were saying that the primary task of prisons was rehabilitation rather than punishment. In 1971, Roper asked respondents which statement on crime best reflected their own views: that ``the main purpose of prisons is to punish criminals and keep them away from the rest of the society,'' or ``to keep criminals separate from the rest of society until they can be rehabilitated and returned to society.'' Seventy-six percent said ``rehabilitate''; only 15 percent ``punish.'' By 1993, however, a similar question asked by the Los Angeles Times found 61 percent emphasizing punishment, and only 25 percent rehabilitation.

Dealing with crime is enormously complex. It resists neat answers. Still, Americans have clearly changed their mind in some fundamental sense about the nature of the response needed - in a generally conservative direction.

On cultural questions, too, the mood is conservative. Two motion pictures released this summer have attracted enormous audiences around the country. Both of them - ``Forrest Gump'' and ``The Lion King'' - are unapologetically didactic and traditionally moralistic. Many factors influence a film's success. But in the case of these two films, the success probably accrues in large part from their riding a tide of public sentiment.

It's by no means clear that the Republicans - the natural beneficiaries of this conservatizing swing - will gain greatly from it. Whatever may happen Nov. 8, the GOP has failed for 40 years to persuade voters to give it control of Congress. But the long-running conservative swing entails a sweeping transformation of American politics that has the potential, at least, of effecting a major partisan realignment.

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