Voters get chance to prove they can take medicine

February 17, 1993|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- A year ago tomorrow, voters in the New Hampshire Democratic primary sent a message that they were ready to swallow some bitter medicine to improve the economy. Now we are going to find out if they and other voters across the country were serious about it.

The triumph of former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas in that primary could not be traced entirely to his dour message on the economy. Candidate Bill Clinton's troubles with Gennifer Flowers and his draft history obviously played a part.

But the Tsongas campaign was predicated on the assumption that many voters were alarmed enough about their futures to accept the painful prescriptions he outlined in his 86-page book, "A Call to Economic Arms" -- a title recalled, perhaps coincidentally, by President Clinton's "call to arms" Monday night.

And the response to the one-term former senator from Massachusetts, coupled with that to independent Ross Perot later in the election year, validated that assumption.

Mr. Clinton was not among those calling for sacrifice a year ago; he was one of the Democrats promising a middle-class tax cut. But his entire campaign was founded on the notion of, first, radical change in the direction of the government and, second, a president who would be an activist in confronting the economic malaise.

Now Mr. Clinton is coming forward with specifics that apparently will be far more like Mr. Tsongas' ideas than like his own a year ago -- and hoping the electorate is as susceptible to the idea of change as it was then.

The flurry of polls in the last few days seem to suggest an electorate willing to accept some short-term pain for long-term gain. A New York Times-CBS News survey found that 54 percent of the voters thought it "necessary to increase taxes on people like you" to reduce the federal deficit and that 43 percent thought it was "not necessary." An ABC News poll found 75 percent who thought people should be ready to make sacrifices, although only a minority -- 40 percent -- believed that most Americans are willing to do so.

But professional poll-takers and the politicians for whom they work take such figures with more than a soupcon of skepticism. As one polling expert put it, "You can't go to the bank on numbers like that."

The problem, political professionals say, is that some poll questions seem to invite a "right" answer and that this is such a case because it is more respectable to be willing to sacrifice than not. When it comes to specifics, the number of voters willing to suffer a little may be lower.

Nor can the mood of the electorate a year ago -- or even on Election Day -- be taken as a guide to attitudes today. The context has changed in too many ways.

For one thing, the improving economic indicators in the last three months have nourished the notion that the recession is over and raised hopes that the economy may simply work itself out. In fact, there are still 9 million unemployed and there have been too many industries in which jobs are being permanently eliminated to allow for such complacency. But the figures at least appear to support the concept expressed by Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas that there has been a "Bush recovery" under way.

Second, Mr. Clinton is seeking the trust of the electorate although he already has ruffled some feathers, particularly with his plan to eliminate the prohibition against homosexuals in the armed forces. A new poll in Texas, where the gay rights issue has been hotly debated, finds Mr. Clinton with an approval rating of only 27 percent and disapproval of 53 percent -- figures that may be extreme but are indicative.

Finally, Mr. Clinton is in the position of having to make an argument that sounds familiar coming from any new president -- that is, that things are in worse shape than he knew or imagined when he was running. It remains to be seen whether he and his surrogates have the credibility to make that case.

The president's success in eventually enacting a program depends to a large degree on how the White House manages the inevitable trade-offs required to pass any plan -- and particularly whether changes can be made without robbing it of the appearance of fairness.

The White House is already well aware of several groups that will require some deft handling. Mr. Clinton's plan to raise the taxes on the Social Security benefits of relatively affluent retired people is certain to cause a storm. So is a proposal for deep cuts in farm price support payments. The same is likely for the proposed tax on energy.

A little more than three months ago the voters tossed out President George Bush largely because they believed he had neither the interest nor the ability to produce a coherent economic program. Now we will see what they do when they get one laid before them.

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