Americans are fed up with politics, want drastic changes, analysts say

March 10, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Only a year after their votes swept a new president and more than 100 new members of Congress into office, Americans seem more fed up with politicians than ever, and their sour mood is giving a boost to efforts to overhaul the machinery of government.

The public's discontent is bolstering support for two drastic governmental changes: a campaign to limit the number of terms that elected officials may serve and the drive for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget, whose backers have vowed to fight on despite the Senate's recent defeat of the measure.

The Clinton White House's clumsiness in handling conflict-of-interest charges stemming from the Whitewater affair seems to hold the potential for intensifying the public's sense of frustration and alienation.

A Time magazine/CNN survey taken in January showed only 40 percent of those interviewed said they thought of President Clinton as "a leader you can trust," while 56 percent said they had "doubts and reservations."

Another sign of rebelliousness: A survey released last month by GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio gave Ross Perot 20 percent of the vote in a three-way matchup for the White House with Mr. Clinton and Senate Republican leader Bob Dole. That's about the same share the Texas billionaire's insurgent candidacy gained in the 1992 election.

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman linked voter disenchantment to a record high level of mistrust of government. A recent Gallup Poll showed that only 20 percent of respondents said they believe that they can trust the federal government all or some of the time -- little more than half the percentage during the Watergate scandal in 1974.

What sets this public distemper apart from most such periods in the past is that the nation is now at peace, with its economy moving ahead. The causes of the current mood seem more complex and more deeply rooted, reflecting a fundamental dissatisfaction with the institutions of government that dates to Watergate and the Vietnam War.

Everett Carll Ladd, director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion, likens the current climate to the progressive period of the early 1900s, which spawned a range of reforms -- including anti-trust legislation and replacement of the spoils system with a civil service -- aimed at curbing big business excesses and government corruption.

"Then and now there was a sense of failure of representative institutions," Mr. Ladd said.

But some political scientists fear that the balanced-budget and term-limit remedies could cause more harm than good.

"They limit the choices that people can make in elections and the choices their elected representative can make," said Johns Hopkins University's Benjamin Ginsberg.

Polling figures indicate that the changes wrought by the 1992 presidential election have done little to alter the public's negativism. Although Democrats control both the White House and Congress, 62 percent of those interviewed in a Harris Poll last month said they believe that legislative gridlock persists.

Mr. Clinton's approval ratings have improved recently, but Mr. Ladd notes that the president's overall score for his first 13 months in office is the lowest of any chief executive (except Gerald R. Ford) for the same period since regular presidential polling began -- when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president.

At the heart of the problem, says University of California, Los Angeles political scientist John Petrocik, are clashing public attitudes -- increasing demands for government to solve problems, combined with sharp disagreement over which problems should be tackled first and skepticism about government's ability to solve any of them.

Dan Palmer, California director of United We Stand, America, the political group founded by Mr. Perot, says the wellspring of public discontent is chronic government overspending. "People are concerned that the government lacks integrity, that it lives by [different] rules," he said.

In the wake of the Senate's rejection of the balanced budget amendment, some backers are trying to get 34 states to call for a constitutional convention to draft such an amendment. Lewis K. Uhler, head of the National Tax Limitation Committee, says 29 states have already adopted the necessary legislation.

Backers of term-limit proposals argue that the way to restore public confidence is to break the power of long-entrenched incumbents and curb the power of special interests.

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