Washington Scandals Hold No Sway on This Subway

Republican leaders cry out for independent investigations of Democratic fund-raising practices. Politicians bicker on Sunday talk shows about Clinton coffee klatches and beachside GOP retreats for top party contributors. Newspaper headlines shout "Al Gored!" as reporters analyze each new revelation about the vice president and its possible impact on a White House bid three years from now.

As Washington chases from one "scandal" to another, a certain irony abides: Not only do politicians and the public view the fund-raising issues differently, the public may be more interested in the issues topping each party's agenda than the politicians are.

"No one [in Washington] wants to deal with the real problems facing the country, like fixing entitlements and welfare reform," says Michael Fazio, a pony-tailed architect waiting for his evening train in Boston's Park Street subway station. "Those issues matter, as opposed to the scandals, which are just the same old nonsense."

There is almost always a gulf between what concerns Washington and the general public. Much of what goes on inside the beltway seems arcane or inconsequential to pig farmers in Des Moines or soccer moms in Phoenix.

But in the two years since Republicans took control of Congress and signaled an end to the New Deal model of big government, the significant shift in policy priorities has, generally, raised public awareness of a range of meaty issues: balancing the budget, fixing Medicare and Social Security, reforming welfare and farm subsidies, and finding betters ways to educate our children.

"If anything, the public is focused on the importance of balancing the budget," says Charles Cook, a Washington-based political analyst. Washington, meanwhile, "likes a good scandal. It's fascinated by it."

Mr. Cook disagrees that the public is paying closer attention to Congress now, or that much else besides the budget registers beyond the Beltway. Stadium proposals are more likely to dominate dinner conversations in Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco than Medicare reform.

Views beyond the beltway

But conversations with public-opinion experts in other parts of the country suggest that voters are thinking about a range of issues that reflect on the national debate of the past two years.

Battles over tougher campaign-finance laws are playing out in California and Colorado. More than a dozen state legislatures are locked in battles over the issue of same-sex marriage. Education reform, the centerpiece of President Clinton's second-term agenda, is a top concern from coast to coast. Farmers and small-business owners share new hopes for cuts in the capital-gains tax rate this year.

"Those are the issues exercising the public," says Merv Field, a San Francisco-based pollster who earlier this week released a new report showing that, while Californians overwhelmingly support benefits for domestic partners, they oppose same-sex marriage. "That report hit Page 1 up and down the state and generated a lot of calls and letters to the editors," he says.

Western divide

Two recent polls in Colorado spell the gulf between Washington and the Rocky Mountains. While allegations of fund-raising abuses "grow from a drizzle into a torrential rain," notes Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli, "growth, crime, education, and transportation are the top issues here."

Less scientifically, subway interviews here in Boston suggest voters are more concerned about foreign policy and the impact of last fall's welfare reforms than how much Vice President Gore received from Buddhist monks.

"Something there's illegal," says Curtis Guarrant, a retired food-services employee, his chin pronounced by tufts of white whiskers. "But Bill Clinton makes up for it by putting people to work. There's more people working now."

Clinton excesses not news

One reason the fund-raising fight fails to galvanize interest outside the beltway may be different perceptions about the scope of the issue.

While Washington wakes each morning to some new revelation, 68 percent of the public, according to Cook's newest data, thinks the Clinton has done nothing new or to any greater excess than previous presidents. There's a strong sense among voters that both parties commit questionable acts when financing campaigns.

"I'm disappointed, but I'm not surprised," says Paul Diengott, a telecommunications salesman in Boston.

The pace of new allegations, meanwhile, make it hard for the public to stay focused. The cadence is too fast for most people to bother tracking: Whitewater counsel Kenneth Starr is out; Clinton opened Lincoln Bedroom to donors; Whitewater counsel Kenneth Starr is back; Gore made fund-raising calls from the White House.

"Just when you go to measure one claim," says D.J. Leary, publisher of a political newsletter in Minnesota, "another problem surfaces. "There isn't much shelf life" to each allegation. "I get the sense people on the East Coast care more about it."

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