The Voters' Smile

The disaffected American, put off by partisan bickering and the power of special interests, has become something of an icon of political analysis. But current polls could chip the icon, if not shatter it.

They show most Americans relatively happy with the political status quo and the institutions that support it. A mid-August poll released by Public Opinion Strategies, a firm with GOP ties, finds, for instance, that 55 percent of Americans give Congress a favorable rating, while 38 percent turn thumbs down. That's the highest Congress has been in the public's esteem for the past two decades.

Almost half the 800 voters surveyed (47 percent) felt the country was on the right track (42 percent disagreed). Those results jibed with other surveys showing, for example, that a majority of Americans believe Congress and the president are working well together.

The immediate explanation for this rosier public outlook is the recently concluded balanced budget agreement, which, for all its creakiness, proved that a Republican Congress and Democratic president can cooperate. Beyond that legislative accomplishment, the healthy economy casts a glow over nearly all politicians.

But economic trends shift, and the sparring between the White House and congressional Republicans could resume any time. Newt Gingrich, seeking to reclaim his spot in the conservative vanguard, has been threatening a major fight to halt what he sees as a Clinton-led weakening of welfare reform. As the sparks fly, public disgust could build again.

The deeper question, perhaps, is whether periodic public disaffection with politics ever indicates serious reservations about the country's core system of government. That we doubt. And poll data over many years suggests that Americans are fully capable of appreciating the ideals of democracy, justice, and freedom - and the institutions designed to uphold them - even as they fume about the pork barrel spending, demagogic rhetoric, or questionable fund-raising of some politicians.

Those ideals are a source of national pride - and of persistent reform - as the political system's occupants try (or are pushed) to live up to them.

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