Under the electoral volcano

November 08, 1994|By Kevin Phillips

Bethesda -- TODAY, the angry volcano that is the American electorate will rumble. The eruption will be only partial, but the image is apt.

The citizenry is smoldering, not knowing whether to quit voting in disgust or blow up in anger. And 1994 is only a beginning, more upheaval is coming.

Part of the anger stems from concerns that the choice between Democrats and Republicans is too limited. Fifty-five to 60 percent of Americans would like a third party, according to surveys; that's a higher percentage than will bother to vote.

Experts predict a turnout of about 36 percent today, down from the usual 38 to 39 percent.

The Republicans will make enough gains to put them in control of the Senate and possibly even the House, or at least make them the strongest Republican minority that any Democratic president has faced since 1951-52. Either arrangement will make 1993-94 "gridlock" look like enthusiastic collaboration.

Voters, of course, would enjoy confounding the experts, along with the politicians, lobbyists, journalists and other performers in a drama the public is coming to disdain.

But there is an important ambiguity. For some disgusted voters, commitment is flickering out, for others, it is flaring up. So this hard-to-predict volcano will erupt only partly this year, probably growl more loudly in 1996 -- after two years in which Washington becomes even more of a lobbyists' heaven and blame-game arcade -- and then do who-knows-what in the great millennial election of the year 2000.

Of course, public discontent with U.S. leaders and a fear for the future are not new. They have been building for three decades. But this fall they are approaching critical mass.

In one national poll in September, more than five out of six respondents agreed that George Washington would be disappointed in the city that bears his name, and that the capital is wholly or partly controlled by interest groups.

Three-quarters said laws should be made by ordinary voters through national referendum -- an echo of Ross Perot's "national town meeting" style of governance.

Other polls find about half of Americans saying it would be a good idea to elect an "independent" president, or indicating that Congress might just as well be chosen at random from a list of registered voters.

Independent candidacies at the state level have also mushroomed this year, and the Democratic pollster Celinda Lake predicts that "you'll see them winning 6 percent, 7 percent or 10 percent of the vote, when they would have won 1 percent or 2 percent in the past."

Loyalty to the two major parties is unraveling even among prominent officials and leaders. From New York and Pennsylvania to California, a surprising number of moderate Republicans are endorsing Democratic gubernatorial and Senate candidates, while some conservative Democrats in the House of Representatives have met to discuss the possibility of helping elect a Republican or conservative as Speaker of the House.

For his part, Mr. Perot continues to be a loose cannon -- endorsing Republicans for Congress and Democratic governors in Texas and Colorado, and helping Mario Cuomo in New York by endorsing an independent who will siphon votes away from the Republican challenger, George E. Pataki.

But voters' desire to strike at the politicians, purge the capital and retool the system, however vivid in the opinion surveys, lacks an explicit lever in the voting booth. The public-opinion volcano may be ready to erupt, but it lacks a clear channel.

Most midterm elections for Congress are largely a referendum on the party in the White House. As late as last month, there were signs of a Republican surge big enough to sweep away Democratic control of both the Senate and House; low Democratic turnout could still make that happen, but some polls suggest that voters are grasping an obvious caution: Republican talk about reform in Washington is not necessarily reliable.

After all, when the Republican Congressional candidates gathered in September to announce their "Contract With America," they didn't meet in Philadelphia on the grounds of Independence Hall. Instead, they met in Washington, home of the very special interests from whom they were busy soliciting campaign contributions -- and on whose behalf Republican lawmakers were about to block proposed legislative curbs on lobbyists.

Like the Democrats, the Republicans have been so much a part of the Washington problem that it is hard to see them providing real answers. Even Oliver North, for all his efforts to present himself as an outsider, first strode into the limelight as a central figure in the pre-eminent Washington scandal of the 1980s.

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