Interviews raise doubts about venture in Haiti

ON POLITICS

September 28, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

SOMERSET, Pa. -- "I support the president in a case like this," says Thorn Hargard, a college English instructor, "but I don't understand what we get out of Haiti. Are the bad guys leaving, or what?"

At Carlisle, a few miles east, Harrison Ivie has a similar view. "Mr. Clinton means well, I'll give him credit for that, but I don't see where it's our job to clean up every mess."

Marie Squillino, who describes herself as Ivie's "special friend and you better believe it," is less charitable toward Clinton. "Everybody's dodging the issue," she says. "It's the blacks in Congress made him do it. That's why he had to do it, because they vote for him all the time."

In Hershey, a retired teacher who prefers to remain anonymous zeros in on the risk to Americans. "I can't see where he has made a convincing case that we have to send our boys in there," he says. "I'll tell you this much: If we lose a lot of troops there, there's going to be hell to pay. And I don't see what the payoff is going to be for the good old U.S.A."

These are examples of random conversations with voters in Pennsylvania that suggest that Americans may be more confused and puzzled by the Haiti exercise than angered by Clinton's decision to send in troops. They also suggest that there are, as opinion polls indicate, widespread reservations about the president's stewardship on foreign policy questions.

"This is not Clinton's strong suit," says a restaurant proprietor in Carlisle. "I voted for him because I thought he would do something about taxes and I figured, what the hell, the Cold War is over so it doesn't matter much who's in there. But now it seems to be one small crisis after another."

Not everyone is skeptical, of course. In Philadelphia, Lewanda Dukes, an African-American mother pushing her twins' stroller along Ben Franklin Parkway, is solidly behind Clinton. "If those were white people down there," she says, "there wouldn't be all these complaints. Those people are living in slavery and right on our doorstep."

And Arnold Green, a medical student out for a bicycle ride, agrees. "I don't think we had any choice in the matter," he says. "Either we do something or we close our eyes to a terrible situation."

The questions about Haiti and Clinton's handling of foreign policy don't seem to have any direct meaning for the 1994 elections. Asked if the events in Haiti might influence their vote in the Senate race between Democratic incumbent Harris Wofford and Republican challenger Rick Santorum, few voters see any connection.

"I don't see this as a party matter," says Harrison Ivie. "It's just another example of everything being screwed up in Washington and nobody there listening to people." Then he adds, "I'm a Democrat but I'm voting against Wofford this time because I think we need term limits and this is one way to do it."

Medical student Green has similar doubts despite his support for Clinton's actions in Haiti. "Generally," he says, "I don't think he's got his act together. . . so there's a lot of temptation to vote Republican."

"It isn't just Haiti," says Tom Walsh, an electrical contractor working under the hood of his panel truck. "It's the whole thing down in Washington. Nothing ever seems to change and all we get is blah, blah, blah. We should get them all out of there and start fresh but I suppose that's a pipe dream."

Random interviews with 30-odd voters is not any kind of scientific sampling of opinion. But they do show a clear pattern of alienation in voters' attitudes toward Washington and the political establishment.

How this factors out in the Senate and House elections Nov. 8 is impossible to quantify. But what does seem clear is that in voters for whom it is a close call, there is a strong predisposition against the incumbents and the Clinton administration.

"Look," says Tom Walsh, gesturing vigorously with a screwdriver, "I thought Clinton was going to be a big improvement on Bush, that he would take over and get some things done. Instead, he's trying to pass a health care plan that would put me out of business and he's spending my money on some crazy invasion in Haiti. I just can't see the point, so I say try somebody else."

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