Odd Discontent Makes Electorate Hard to Read

October 09, 1994|By C. FRASER SMITH

Is something out there in this election year, some surly transformation of the body politic marching grimly toward the polls?

If so, how big is it? Does it belong to a party, or is it bent on repudiating party and pol?

Those who say it's there call it angry, disaffected, perverse -- anti-everything that seems entrenched, Beltway-bound and clueless about the life in the real world. You could think of it as a form of instant term limitation, a fast-rolling skein of discontent that picks up every strand of societal unhappiness.

The talk show hosts feel it, hear it and try to keep it agitated. Politicians accuse them of creating it.

Yet this movement or mood or malaise may have been there all along. Not even apple pie and motherhood are more all-American values than throwing the bums out.

So, pollsters hover over it, try to measure its size, intensity and pace.

They talk to people like Jerry Howard, 78, the wife of a retired newspaper printer who lives on Susquehanna Avenue in


"I'm not angry, I'm discouraged and disgusted," she says. "Everybody talks about what they're going to do, but when they get into office they don't do it."

She is tired, she said, of politicians "blowing smoke."

"I think we need a change," says Daisy Fields, 46, a state government employee from Baltimore. "A lot of things have been mixed up and misused. We need to find someone to get in there who we can trust."

A September survey by the Times Mirror Co., which publishes The Sun and other newspapers, found voters throughout the nation remarkably sour, self-absorbed and politically unmoored, ready for brand new parties, ready for radical solutions -- ready for anything but the brain-dead politics first condemned and now symbolized by Bill Clinton.

Never mind that the president was rebuffed in his exploration of new approaches to health care and campaign reform finance reform while barely winning passage of his budget and anti-crime bills.

What is regarded by some as a Clinton-driven mood of retribution was spotted in Oklahoma where eight-term Democrat Rep. Mike Synar, one of Mr. Clinton's best congressional friends, was defeated in the primary by a 70-year-old retired school principal. A term-limit measure passed by 67 percent to 33 percent.

In Maryland, the change bloc showed itself to be somewhat nonpartisan, unceremoniously retiring Republican Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who wanted to be governor.

Now, the GOP's gubernatorial nominee, Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, hopes she can ride it to victory. She thinks it will neutralize her opponent's huge advantage in campaign funds, endorsements,

organizational support and voter registration.

Values are 'threatened'

Mrs. Sauerbrey, who fought what she regarded as a deaf Democratic majority in the House of Delegates, now finds an electorate potentially eager to hear. Whatever it is out there, she says, it is not necessarily perverse.

"People sense that the quality of life, the values they have cherished are very much threatened. I share the feeling that bad public policy is at the root of undermining the values," she says.

"Is it government's fault? I'm one of those who blame government. I think an awful lot of the random street violence comes from the breakdown of any sense of personal responsibility, that government has encouraged the belief that people aren't responsible for their actions. Government has created a permanent underclass of people who believe they're entitled to be taken care of by the government.

"It's a very short step from not getting what you're entitled to that you're going to take it away from someone else," she reasons.

She would, she says, look directly to entitlement programs for the cuts that would be needed to enact a 24 percent income tax cut. Millions can be saved, she says, by enforcing eligibility rules. Savings can be made also by limiting food stamps to their intended purpose, she thinks.

She gets her own sense of Maryland's mood in a local grocery store. One clerk told her: "I stand on my feet for eight hours, and I watch people with welfare checks buying steamed shrimp."

People still feel pinched

Some poll analyses have suggested that the public is perverse because, while the economy is officially out of recession, people are still pinched financially. Perhaps it is because American families have made little economic progress over at least a decade -- though husbands and wives work at least one job apiece. Too many children are in day care, too many teen-agers are flipping hamburgers while they should be studying -- and the tax bite "gets deeper and deeper."

It is here, in the soft soil of high taxes, that Mrs. Sauerbrey plants her flag. Her proposal for a 24 percent income tax cut over has drawn voters who still do not know her name and refer to her as "that woman."

Though she offers herself as "new," she will encounter the very skepticism that has vaulted her into the role of formidable contender: Is she serious? Can she do it?

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