The Politicians' Puzzle

September 24, 1994

Americans may not be "mad as hell," as they were once portrayed in the movie "Network," but they're not particularly happy either. If the public mood seems exceedingly skittish and irritable these days, we now have a poll to paint the picture in neat percentages. Neat, perhaps, for the pollsters but a puzzle for politicians.

Maryland is a good example. Del. Ellen Sauerbrey's stunning upset of Rep. Helen D. Bentley in the Republican gubernatorial primary suggests that voters are tired of familiar faces and want dramatic change in government. Yet Democrats had no trouble embracing some faces that are more familiar than Mrs. Bentley's.

Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein coasted to another victory over his stiffest opposition yet. So did two-term Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. In other contests, voters of both parties handed victories to an impressive number of incumbents. For every surprise in the primary elections, it was possible to point to several other races where the outcomes were entirely predictable.

Still, politicians are well-advised to take nothing for granted this campaign season. The American mood is somewhat sour. A new study by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press describes the American electorate as "angry, self-absorbed and politically unanchored." That's bad news for political parties and many politicians.

The study is of interest because it groups voters not according to traditional categories like sex, race, income or geography, but according to values and attitudes. This yields categories like "New Economy Independents," the 18 percent of adults described by Andrew Kohut, director of the survey, as those who are clinging precariously to a modest standard of living. These voters, who held great hope for the Clinton agenda, are disillusioned and waiting for an independent voice who can represent their interests. They are not alone.

Rather than serving as a way of focusing political thinking, the two major parties are regarded by increasing numbers of Americans as irrelevant. Large numbers of voters are still attracted to the kind of independent political movement represented in the last election by Ross Perot.

Pity the politicians. For them, employment usually depends on giving the people what they want. But as the economic, political and social certainties of the post World-War II era are shattering, it is as difficult to discern what the people want as what can be possible in a changing world.

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