Voters Feeling Remote From Politics
By Dan Balz and Ceci Connolly
Wight, an electrical engineer, tries to pay attention to the news from the nation's capital, but finds other demands take priority. "Politics in Washington doesn't seem to affect me directly," he said. "It's all too remote. My job and the traffic and the kids swamp out national politics."
Wight's situation is hardly unique in this summer of 1997. The nation's humming economy has helped anesthetize the anger that drove American politics in the early 1990s, bringing about a level of personal satisfaction and economic confidence not seen in decades.
The bountiful economy appears to be paying dividends for President Clinton, who despite controversies over campaign financing and the embarrassment of a sexual harassment lawsuit enjoys the highest job approval rating (64 percent) of his presidency, according to a new nationwide Washington Post-ABC News poll. Approval of Congress stands at 40 percent, exactly where it was last spring.
Whatever this mood of contentment has done for Clinton's standing, it has made Washington appear less relevant than when voters wanted action on the economy. Voters dislike the never-ending flow of news about scandal and are pessimistic that the campaign financing system will ever be cleaned up.
These are among the conclusions that emerged from interviews in three congressional districts around the country last week along with the poll that was completed this week. The interviews took place in ticket-splitting areas of Wisconsin, Missouri and Washington, in precincts where voters generally chose candidates from different parties in last year's presidential and congressional races.
Some Americans say they see a new atmosphere of cooperation between Clinton and the Republicans. But for a majority, yesterday's anger has given way to feelings of disaffection and disgust at the games politicians play in the nation's capital.
As Judith Johnson of Onalaska, Wis., put it: "They dig up dirt on each other and fight like kids in the playground."
More than anything, the national economy has widened the gap between voters and Washington. In LaCrosse, Wis., unemployment stands at just 2.7 percent, while in Columbia, Mo., it is around 3 percent. In the Seattle area, which has suffered from boom-and-bust periods, the two marquee employers, airplane manufacturer Boeing Co. and computer software giant Microsoft Corp., are flush with business.
From airports jammed with vacation travelers to new mini-vans parked in twin garages, signs of financial confidence abound. Voters say the booming economy has provided the time and money to expand businesses, invest in the stock market and coach children's sports teams.
"My husband is a builder," said Cindy Durnil, a Columbia, Mo., homemaker, "and there are lots of houses going up."
Voters still think it is important that Washington should balance the budget. But with Congress poised to do just that, voters remain skeptical they will ever see the deficit eliminated -- particularly because the biggest cuts are to come after Clinton leaves office.
"Nobody wants to have it on their watch," said Paul Kress, who lives in the Seattle suburbs. "It's more important to be liked than to do what's right."
Nor do people expect to pocket much from the tax cuts Clinton and Congress hope to give them.
If there is a silver lining for elected officials, it may be that public expectations are so low that any real progress on an issue such as the budget deficit could accrue to the advantage of incumbents in next year's midterm elections.
For now, people are not counting on Washington for much help. "Most people here figure they either make it or not on their own," said Mike Hayes, a radio talk show host in LaCrosse.
A Guarded Optimism
If Clinton and Congress were to receive a mid-year report card from constituents it would likely read: some signs of improvement; needs more work.
Clinton's popularity has spilled over to his party. Voters said they trust Democrats more than Republicans to help the middle class and handle the economy. Even on traditional GOP issues such as holding down taxes and dealing with crime, Democrats hold a narrow advantage, according to the poll.
Some voters praise the vibrant economy or applaud a pet piece of legislation, but overwhelmingly it is not any single development that has elicited their guarded optimism. Rather it is a sense that the vitriol of two years ago has begun to dissipate.
Clinton's standing contrasts with the profile of GOP congressional leaders. Based on interviews in the precincts, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) remains a lightning rod, unpopular even with many Republicans who fear his bombastic style has overshadowed any substantive achievements. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who has hinted at national aspirations, is virtually unknown beyond the Beltway.
For his part, Clinton is considered a champion of the middle class, a man of obvious foibles who struggles on in the face of adversity, battling a GOP Congress best known for shutting down the government in 1995.
"He's done as well as he can with all those people fighting him," said Durnil, the Columbia homemaker.
Even many conservatives who object to what one described as Clinton's "alley cat" morals nevertheless acknowledge the country is thriving on his watch. "I don't trust him," said Don Crosby, a former priest who runs the Kirksville, Mo., ambulance service. "My economic life is doing well, so I guess I have to give him some credit."
Still, doubts about Clinton's credibility linger and some people express uncertainty about his vision for a second term. "To be perfectly honest, I don't know what he wants to accomplish -- other than maybe to elect [Vice President] Gore president," said Seattle seaman Dave Weiner.
Weary of Scandals
In the early 1990s, anxious about job security and disgusted by lawmakers who floated checks, voters threw the bums out. Today, the electorate exhibits a weary resignation with the scandals consuming Washington. Whether it is Paula Corbin Jones, Whitewater or campaign finance abuses, people outside Washington opt to filter out the ugliness spewing from the capital.
Only 25 percent said they are very or fairly interested in Jones's sexual harassment lawsuit against the president and 78 percent said the charges have not changed their opinion of Clinton. On Whitewater, 40 percent said they are very or fairly interested in the investigation into the Arkansas land deal.
It is not that voters condone unsavory behavior or approve of outrageously expensive campaigns. They just cannot see a way out of the morass.
"It bothers all of us," said Fred Stair, a high school teacher in Wisconsin. "The American people are sick and tired of what Democrats dig up about Republicans and what Republicans dig up about Democrats."
Nowhere is the level of frustration greater than on the subject of money in politics. Although they are appalled by the cost of elections and sense that fat-cat donors wield immense clout, voters do not blame one party over another. A number of voters support spending caps, yet there is no groundswell for reform.
"Every politician has always been engaged in questionable, if not illegal, acts," said Wisconsin attorney Todd Bjerke, adding that Clinton is no different from George Bush or Richard M. Nixon.
And no one was planning to tune in to the current hearings on Capitol Hill. In fact, if the investigation degenerates into a partisan blood bath, it likely will reinforce the negative feelings people have about political combat in Washington.
When it comes to personal behavior, there remains a small but vocal minority that abhors a president who bypassed military service, experimented with marijuana and is accused of marital infidelity. "Clinton is an abominable sleaze," said Columbia retiree Betty Rogers. "They all indicate the kind of man he is."
Many more say they are sick of the "circus atmosphere" in Washington, fueled by sound-bite journalism and win-at-all-costs political parties.
"If it's a crime, I want to hear about it," said Carol Hicks of the Seattle area. "But if it's who slept with whom, I don't care about it."
Budget and Tax Concerns
The skepticism toward Washington remains so strong that few people interviewed last week eagerly awaited the outcome of the budget and tax negotiations, and 79 percent of those interviewed for the Post-ABC poll said they doubt the budget will be balanced in five years. Still, they agreed that eliminating the deficit is important. "I'd like to see them balance the budget and get rid of the deficit," said Bill Kent of Columbia, a father of three children. "If you've got kids, you don't want to leave them a big deficit."
Few people expect budget balancing to be painless, and many wonder why Congress and Clinton are pressing ahead with a tax cut. The Post-ABC poll found that 41 percent said Congress should cut taxes now, while 54 percent said tax cuts should wait until the deficit is gone. "I think the budget should be balanced first," said Monica Kruse, a special education teacher in the LaCrosse area.
The Senate voted to raise the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67, and 64 percent of those interviewed in the poll said they disapprove of the change. But 62 percent said they would support requiring wealthy retirees to pay a larger share of their Medicare costs.
"There should be more co-payments," said Dennis Lockette, 57, a nurse anesthetist in Columbia. "The AARP [American Association of Retired Persons] and the Gray Panthers would kill me, but the elderly -- that will include myself soon -- should pay a little bit more if they can."
Beyond that, few issues appeared to have captured much attention among Americans this summer, from Clinton's initiative on race to trade relations with China. Issues closer to home -- a new stadium in Seattle, annexation battles in LaCrosse and highway improvements in Missouri -- have generated more interest.
"Most of the focus is on local issues," said Richard Miel, opinion page editor of the LaCrosse Tribune.
Balz reported from Washington, Connolly from Missouri. Staff writer David S. Broder in Wisconsin, polling director Richard Morin and staff researcher Barbara J. Saffir contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company