Budget backer manages to keep his credibility ON POLITICS



CLAREMONT, Okla. -- Halfway through Rep. Mike Synar's meeting with his constituents here, an elderly man had something positive to say. "I want to thank you," he told the Democratic congressman, "for staying on track with our president."

There was instant and noisy applause, but it came from only a handful of the 100 or so who had gathered at Dailey's restaurant here. Mike Synar is not kidding himself into believing his vote for President Clinton's economic program has gone down well with his constituents -- not when it ran counter to that of the sainted Sen. David Boren and the rest of the Oklahoma delegation.

What was intriguing, nonetheless, was that on a day when the temperature was climbing toward 100 degrees and the air conditioning couldn't keep up with the overflow audience, the liberal congressman had managed to attract 100 people to Dailey's for the last in a series of 11 forums on health care reform he has been holding since he cast that tough vote in Washington.

The turnout here in Rogers County, the toughest part of his district for Synar, suggests that he may be right in believing there is a consuming concern about health care -- to the point that it is an ideal issue to use as a device to turn the electorate away from angry post-mortems on his vote on the budget.

Synar doesn't duck the question of his vote. Rather, he disarms his critics to a degree by calling the plan, as he put it to the Bristow Rotary Club, "serious, honest budget cuts" and "an infusion of some fairness" back into the tax tables but still only the first step in a program in which health care reform is the second critical step toward economic health.

Synar concedes that the vote was politically costly -- "I had to bite a real bullet here" -- and invites his constituents to "hold me accountable" if the economy has not improved a year from now when he runs for re-election. But he also insists the economic plan and health care reform were what the voters were seeking when they opted for change from George Bush to Bill Clinton last year.

Winding up his meeting here, he reminded his listeners of a demand for change in 1992 and told them, "This is it. This is what you voted for. Don't run away from us now."

Just how receptive the voters of the Second District may be is an open question. After Synar delivered his rundown on the basics of the health plan he expects next month, his constituents here asked 34 questions that demonstrated an essential ambivalence on the issue. On the one hand, it is clear that many of them have particular concerns about health care that they would like to see resolved. On the other, it is equally clear that they are deeply skeptical about the government's ability to meet their needs.

How are the costs going to be shared? How can they be sure the level of medical services remains as good as it is now? What about home care and preventive medicine and the burdens that will be imposed on small business? Is this another case in which "the arithmetic they do in D.C. is often different?"

Some of Synar's listeners were clearly unconvinced. "You're going to tax us more and tell us how to spend our money," one angry voter shouted. "I think you're just juggling numbers on us, Mike," a young businessman said in more tolerant tones. Will the plan "include the killing of unborn children?" a woman wanted to know.

But the willingness to hear Synar out on the issue has led him to believe there is enough demand for health care reform to make it happen, despite all the pessimism in Washington about the ability of the Clinton administration and Congress to make any substantial progress on the issue.

The operative question is whether Clinton also can use health care to move beyond his narrow escape on the deficit reduction plan and begin again with the electorate. The problem is that Clinton has far less credibility with the electorate at large than Synar enjoys with voters in northeastern Oklahoma he has represented for the last 15 years.

His constituents know Mike Synar is more liberal than they are on gun control, abortion, campaign finance reform, whatever. But he has earned the credibility that any politician gains from being consistent and candid over the years. That is something Bill Clinton still must achieve.

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