Why the Public So Dislikes Politicians

THE President produces not just one but two budgets. The first pleases the liberals, labor leaders, and the poor. The second is a move toward the ''middle.'' It's supposed to appeal to the broad, middle-ground segment of Americans - the same group Clinton reached out to when he called himself a ''New Democrat'' in the last election.

Bill Clinton, many observers are saying, is ''positioning'' himself for the next campaign: He's hoping to lure moderate voters to his side while counting on liberals being with him in the end simply because they have no other place to go.

Then there's the ''positioning'' by the leading Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Bob Dole. By lining up the votes to sustain the filibuster of Dr. Henry Foster to become surgeon general, Senator Dole made himself look good in the eyes of the Far Right. By so doing Dole also upstaged Sen. Phil Gramm, who currently is his chief rival for the GOP nomination and a favorite of the Right.

All this positioning and maneuvering and politicking reminds me of a little informal survey made years ago when I was a young political reporter roaming the United States. I'd ask parents whether they would want their children to seek public office, and invariably I would hear an answer along this line: ''I don't want my child to go into politics because politics is dirty.''

That was the public perception then and, I think, now: Politics is dirty.

When I would pursue this response and ask why these parents felt this way, I would hear stories about this or that officeholder who had been involved in graft or some other kind of misdeed or corruption. I'm sure I would get the same stories today.

In addition there was always criticism of some member of Congress, or governor, or some other public servant, who, these parents would say, ''changed positions'' after being elected. They saw these changes as being unconscionable - as breaches of integrity.

Indeed, I concluded then that the public's disrespect and even contempt for politicians lies mainly with this widespread perception that the people being elected too often break faith with those who put them in office.

Part of this public disdain for politicians lies in a misperception of how our government works-particularly the legislative process. This process proceeds through compromise.

The successful member of Congress, for example, soon sees that politics, as it has been defined over the years, is ''the art of the possible,'' and that success usually occurs only when he or she gives a little here and there on any legislation.

These compromises are often judged by the public as wheeling and dealing and even worse. Yet they can be defended by the assertion that it is within the bounds of personal integrity for an officeholder to make concessions as long as he ''maintains his principles'' in the transaction. That is, the emerging legislation would then have to be something that this legislator feels is worthwhile attaining even in its compromised shape - and, furthermore, that it is as good a piece of legislation as he, realistically, can get.

But while the public may at times be unfair in criticizing the movements of its legislators, I think it has every right to condemn the ''positioning'' of politicians on public issues that relates not to substance but mainly to getting elected.

With his new budget, President Clinton may be able to attract more votes in '96. And Dole, by beating back Foster's nomination, may have become the darling of abortion opponents and other cultural conservatives. But both of these leaders have done little to change the public perception that politics isn't a very pretty occupation.

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