Sen. Kassebaum, plainly speaking Sees Fear of change driving electorate

June 20, 1992|By Charles W. Corddry | Charles W. Corddry,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum says it's not demand for change but fear of change that drives people in this strange election year.

That fact, says the 59-year-old Republican, explains Ross Perot's attraction for people who feel overwhelmed by change and uncertainty: He'll fix everything, never mind how.

At a time when Americans say they're fed up with Washington, the Kansas senator is the antithesis of the stereotypical modern-day politician.

Soft-spoken, fiercely independent and refreshingly candid, she is widely respected as one of the most shrewd and thoughtful members of the Senate. Though she grew up in a political household -- her father, Alf Landon, was the 1936 Republican nominee for president -- she was a late bloomer whose election to the Senate at 46 was her first major campaign for office.

Today, as she mulls over the public's alienation, Mrs. Kassebaum rolls her eyes at the prospect of a Perot victory.

But she finds a cheering development in this generally "discouraging time" -- the accelerating movement of women into politics.

"It's gaining momentum," she says in an interview. Women are excited about winning more public offices, from country commissions on up. In its way, this also reflects popular frustrations over the "power games that politicians play" and a sense that women would do business differently, she says.

But she is not entirely sure how much differently. "Politics is politics," she says. "Women differ on issues just as men do."

She and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, are the only female members of the Senate. Mrs. Kassebaum is in her third term; Ms. Mikulski is seeking a second term in November. Six more women have won nomination for the Senate so far this year, and the Center for the American Woman and Politics says 11 more are entered in primaries in August and September.

Mrs. Kassebaum, a conservative who hasn't been afraid to buck her party when she thinks it's wrong, has attained high standing in her almost 14 years in the Senate.

"Perhaps more than anyone there, she still has the plain-spoken honesty and common sense she had when she arrived in 1979 as an almost complete political neophyte," the Congressional Quarterly publication Politics in America says of Mrs. Kassebaum.

Some of her plain-spoken points in the interview:

* President Bush "doesn't really have a clear focus." And Bill Clinton, the prospective Democratic nominee, has "almost become a cipher," though he could rebound.

* The Republican Party must redefine itself after the coming election and "some of us who care" about the meaning of conservatism "have to step forward" and put it right.

* Clearly, she regards the party's anti-abortion stance as an intrusion in one of a woman's most private decisions. But "disappointed" as she is with the position, Mr. Bush has said it's important to him, and "there is no point in making a fight" at the GOP Convention in Houston in August. "That fight will come in the next four years."

* She voted in 1986 against a balanced budget amendment -- sought anew by Mr. Bush and defeated in the House last week -- and would do so again if it came up in the Senate. She sees it as full ofloopholes.

As for Mr. Perot's chances of becoming president, Mrs. Kassebaum says she had "tended to believe . . . he would wear a bit thin" by November. "But, who knows?"

No one should underestimate Mr. Perot's "street smarts," she says. He reminds her of Kansas Gov. Joan Finney, a Democrat "who got into office by just saying, 'I'll take care of it. I understand what your needs are and I'll take care of it.' "

She first discussed fear of change in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, urging Mr. Bush to decide on his top three second-term objectives and "state plainly how he will accomplish them."

Elaborating, she said people seem overwhelmed by worries and were making government the "great scapegoat" as was customary when there were fears of change.

What objectives would she propose for Mr. Bush to state plainly?

"There's the very flaw in this campaign. The president has to determine what they are . . . I know what I might say. But that's not the same thing as his feeling determined that this is what he feels.

"I think that there's the problem."

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