Different Wavelengths

Political scientists have charted two major trends of American public opinion over the years. One shows that Americans generally shun extreme solutions to problems. The other teaches that, while they often are reputed to vote their own self-interest, Americans still maintain a sense of fairness regarding the treatment of their less-fortunate countrymen.

Thus it is not very surprising that the latest Los Angeles Times poll indicates that there is strong opposition to either of two 1987 budget extremes: President Reagan's plan to slash domestic outlays and increase defense spending, or the if-all-else-fails Gramm-Rudman method of cutting the budget across the board to reduce the deficit to $144 billion.

Only 12% of the 2,241 respondents surveyed by the poll, conducted in late February, favored more defense spending; 80% opposed cuts in welfare and other aid to the poor, although a narrow majority said that it would be all right to trim federal subsidies to Amtrak and local transit districts.

There was no consensus behind any of the existing budget proposals. But, of the unsavory alternatives, the most palatable was to meet the Gramm-Rudman target through selective cuts in both the domestic and national-security budgets and through some increases in federal revenue. The public is not anxious for a tax increase--no surprise--but a majority seems resigned to the reality of some higher taxes as part of a strategy of achieving a balanced budget by 1991.

What is to be made of all this? First, not too much. Interpreting what people mean when they talk to a pollster is a risky business. But one thing seems clear: The Reagan Administration is working on one wavelength and a majority of Americans on another, even though 65% of the same poll respondents approve of the overall manner in which Reagan is handling the presidency.

After five years of hearing alarms about the need to overtake the Soviets, and after approving hundreds of billions of dollars in new defense spending, the public clearly is skeptical about a continued escalation of arms. "People don't like military spending anyway," Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger groused on Sunday. Perhaps not, but they have been willing to pay the price when they are persuaded of the need.

Sometimes leaders must buck popular opinion. But that works only if they stop once in a while to let the people catch up with them. Otherwise they may find themselves out on the limb all alone.

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