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    What America Thinks
    A Kinder, Gentler Government?

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, November 16, 1998

    The surprises in Washington last week merely confirm what voters said so clearly on Election Day. Anger is out and compassion is suddenly in. Most Americans still want the federal government to be lean – but not mean. Exit Newt – enter George Jr.? And staying in place is Bill Clinton, the modern godfather of the politics of compassion.

    National exit polls and interviews with political experts suggest that politicians can no longer expect to win simply by calling for tax cuts and limited government. This year, voters around the country rewarded candidates from both parties who offered a broader and more subtle – dare we say kinder and gentler? – approach to governing.

    "I think that there is a strong sense of social compassion that many Americans hold deeply," says Stanley Feldman, professor of political science at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and an authority on political values. "And they try to juggle this alongside their traditional values of individualism and hard work and limited government. Both sets of values are important, and candidates that manage to negotiate both sets of values these days are the ones who seem to be successful."

    In recent years, politics seemed to disdain compassion, a virtue given a bad rap by the legislative excesses committed in its name during the 1960s and early '70s. But as Republicans learned in this year's midterm elections, politicians ignore America's compassionate streak at their own considerable risk.

    Any short list of American political values and virtues would include compassion, along with belief in limited government, economic individualism, equality, tolerance and religiosity. In a recent survey by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, compassion emerged as a universal and powerful value, tempering attitudes on such hot-button issues as welfare reform, tax cuts and downsizing government.

    But in today's politics, compassion is more tough love than teary idealism. Feldman points to the success of Republican Gov. George Pataki of New York, who was easily reelected even as GOP Sen. Alfonse D'Amato went down to defeat, as an example of a candidate who successfully portrays himself as a pragmatist with a heart.

    "One of the things Pataki has been able to do is to operate within the conservative philosophy of limited government and reduced taxes, but at the same time not be perceived as unsympathetic and cold and heartless," Feldman says.

    It's a lesson other Republican governors have learned. "If you look at the Republican governors who have been successful in the past few years, they have managed to cut taxes and be perceived as scaling down government, but have also managed to communicate some feelings of concern."

    In Texas, GOP Gov. W. George Bush easily won reelection and, at the same time, improved his chances to win his party's presidential nomination in two years by his claim to be a "compassionate conservative." (An even better example was his brother Jeb, who easily won the governorship of Florida by softening his tone and reaching out to minorities – something he didn't do in his defeat four years ago.)

    In California, Democratic governor-elect Gray Davis signaled the beginning of a new, less noisy political era when he noted in his acceptance speech that the days of government-bashing and divisive debates over wedge issues such as affirmative action, abortion and immigrant rights "end tonight."

    Bill Clinton's success has been cut from precisely the same cloth. "Bill Clinton resurrected his presidency between 1994 and 1996 by showing people that he was not the same type of big-government Democrat they might have associated with liberalism prior to that, but at the same time, he had a real sense of compassion and was really concerned with those people who still needed health care, or some temporary support from welfare," Feldman says.

    The problem Republicans face is that they have been able to solve only one half of the equation. And their inability to show a compassionate face to voters while slashing government and cutting taxes has left them at a distinct disadvantage.

    "One of the things that the Republicans have to look very carefully at as a result of both the 1996 presidential election and these past elections is the fact that their anti-government rhetoric does not seem to allow them to address other concerns and other values that Americans hold dear," Feldman says. "It's certainly true that all else being equal, Americans will respond to calls for smaller government and lower taxes, but at the same time they are concerned about the well-being of people in this country, about looking out after the underdog, and about forming policies to take care of the disadvantaged."

    Who Do You Trust?

    Overwhelming majorities of Americans say they trust teachers, clergymen or priests and doctors to tell the truth, with more than eight in 10 Americans saying they believe each of these groups are generally trustworthy, according to a survey conducted by Louis Harris & Associates.

    Who don't Americans trust? Majorities of those interviewed say they're wary of union leaders (58 percent said they would not trust them to tell the truth), journalists (52 percent), TV newscasters (52 percent) and members of Congress (51 percent).

    "In spite of the fact that President Clinton has admitted to lying to the American people about Monica Lewinsky, a modest 54 percent to 44 percent of adults would generally trust him to tell the truth," wrote Hmphrey Taylor, chairman of Louis Harris & Associates.

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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