What people around the nation are talking about


November 27, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

The best thing about being on C-SPAN is that they give you a free coffee mug afterward. The second best thing about being on C-SPAN is learning how quickly America reinvents itself.

C-SPAN asks you to show up at 7:45 a.m. at their TV studios in Washington and listen to what people around the country are saying. Technically, you are supposed to be answering the questions from people around the country, but I think most people call in to voice a concern or get something off their chests.

Polls are supposed to tell us what people around the country care about, but they don't. Polls only tell us what pollsters care about.

Polls only tell us what people say in response to the pollsters' questions. And I have often suspected people are way ahead of the pollsters when it comes to determining what is important to them. I don't blame the pollsters for missing it. It happens so fast.

Just a matter of months ago, we were a warrior nation and George Bush was our chieftain. Throughout the Persian Gulf crisis he looked strong, forthright, and savvy. He could do no wrong.

Through the spring and into the summer, everyone was saying Bush was unbeatable for re-election in 1992. They were saying we wouldn't even have a presidential election if the Constitution didn't require one.

In August there was a coup in the Soviet Union and Bush looked good again. He didn't blink. He stood by his pal Mikhail Gorbachev and Gorbachev prevailed.

And as long as America kept looking overseas, George Bush kept looking like a winner.

The U.S economy? Yeah, well, the economy was not so hot. Interest rates on home mortgages were low, but people were not buying homes. Interest rates on auto loans were low, but people were not buying autos.

And then, seemingly overnight, attitudes in America changed. It was as if we rubbed the stardust of foreign success from our eyes and suddenly saw clearly what was happening at home.

Our economy is in a long, downward slide. And people are afraid. How afraid? Well, there is a scientific poll called the Consumer Confidence Index that shows in figures released yesterday that only 50.6 percent of Americans have confidence in the economy. And I think true confidence is lower than that.

How much lower? Well, I don't know anyone -- not anyone -- who is not at least a little bit afraid of losing his or her job. That's how much lower.

At C-SPAN we go on the set and put earphones in our ears and the calls begin.

"I am a conservative Republican," a man from New York City says. "And I am considering voting for whoever the Democratic nominee is."

This goes against the rule I always tell people: Never analyze an election from one side only. Never say: Well, the economy is in such terrible trouble that Bush will be blamed and so he will lose.

Instead, say: Well, the economy is in terrible trouble and Bush will be blamed, but will voters trust the Democratic nominee more than they trust Bush?

The caller from New York says my rule does not apply. The caller says he is so depressed and angry he is willing to take anybody the Democrats put up.

The big issue of the day, on the front pages of most of America's newspapers, is a crime bill approved by conferees from the Senate and House.

The crime bill expands the death penalty to about 50 federal crimes. If you kill a federal chicken inspector, you could now be executed. The crime bill also includes a national waiting period -- for the purchase of handguns.

Normally, people like to call in and talk about capital punishment and handgun control. But not this morning. Nobody calling in this morning wants to talk about the crime bill. And they don't want to talk about Magic Johnson and AIDS, either.

They want to talk about their wallets and pocketbooks and purses. They want to talk about what is making them so afraid.

I take notes on each call. In Metairie, La., somebody wants to talk about health care. (Not David Duke! Health care.) In Colorado Springs, Colo., somebody wonders why we are sending foreign aid to the Soviet Union instead of keeping it at home. In Lexington, Ky., a woman is blaming not only George Bush but Ronald Reagan for the fact that "rich people have all the money" in this country.

It goes on and on. In Gainesville, Fla., someone is upset over high credit card interest rates. In Utica, New York, a man is worried about immigrants taking jobs from Americans and in Marion, Ohio, a woman says: "George Bush is killing this country like Calvin Coolidge did."

The Mideast peace talks? The civil war in Yugoslavia? Drugs? Race? Forget it.

I don't suggest people do not care about these things. I do not say they might not be talking about them tomorrow.

But today, they are not what people are talking about. And the "hot-button" issues that the Republicans used in the last presidential election -- patriotism and Willie Horton and the death penalty -- well, those issues may not work this time.

People want to talk about the economy and the economy and the economy.

Which is exactly what George Bush does not want to hear.

Is this sampling of C-SPAN callers in any sense a scientific poll?

No. And that's why I believe it.

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