As U.S. Economy Flows, Voter Vitriol Ebbs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was a time, not long ago, when Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.) had to alert the cops every time he planned a town meeting. Back in the early 1990s, the crowds who came to his meetings were so surly--so angry about President Clinton, about taxes, about politics in general--that Price feared the police would be needed to help keep the peace.

Now all that has changed. Price, a low-key former professor who is hardly the sort to incite a riot, is more likely to be greeted by a polite round of applause--maybe even a standing ovation--when he meets with constituents these days. And he's not alone.

After years of contending with an electorate seething with hostility toward the Washington establishment, many lawmakers now find that the populist anger that had dominated the political environment since the early 1990s is on the wane.

Congress' approval ratings have gone up, and the institutional voices of the anti-establishment crowd are growing hoarse. The term-limit movement is petering out. Ross Perot and his Reform Party are at sea. Even Rush Limbaugh, the king of conservative talk radio, has lost listeners. Members of Congress, like Price, no longer have to prepare for every constituent meeting to disintegrate into an anti-incumbent brawl.

But it's not because everyone suddenly loves politicians. Many analysts say the waning of voter anger is a sign not of newfound respect for Washington but a reflection of contentment with the booming economy and a growing feeling that politics is irrelevant to people's lives.

"It isn't a sign of political well-being," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "They don't care about what is being offered" by either political party.

"You hear the same level of frustration with the political status quo that you heard before, but let's face facts--times are extraordinarily good," said Rep. Marshall "Mark" Sanford (R-S.C.). "But I can assure you times will not stay this good."

Indeed, there are still flashes of anti-government animus--witness the public vitriol directed at the Internal Revenue Service earlier this year. Sanford and others warn that the public hostility will resurface more broadly whenever the economy tanks.

But in the meantime, the absence of mad-as-hell fury is a striking change in the political climate that could have a big effect on next year's congressional elections and the way lawmakers do business. As early as this fall, Congress' higher approval ratings emboldened lawmakers to engineer their first pay raise since 1992. Voter apathy--even in the face of a steady stream of revelations about political fund-raising abuses--may help steel congressional determination to resist campaign finance reform.

In the absence of a strong throw-the-bums-out mood, incumbents will have another leg up in the 1998 elections, and voter turnout may hit record lows. And there now may be less incentive for candidates to run as outsiders--a pose that has been de rigueur for the last few congressional campaigns.

Public approval of Congress is hardly sky-high, but it has been consistently higher in 1997 than at most times in the early 1990s. A Gallup Poll found that in August, after passage of the balanced-budget deal, public approval of Congress hit 41%, the highest level since 1987. That approval rating dropped to 36% in late October, but that is still far higher than the 18% rating Gallup charted in 1992.

In another benchmark, pollsters Peter Hart and Robert M. Teeter recently asked people whether they felt their representative in Congress should be reelected or whether a new person should be given a chance to serve. Only 46% favored a new person--the lowest level the pollsters had found since 1989.

In the late 1980s, Americans' skepticism about politics began to take a qualitative leap into bitter cynicism, fueled by a barrage of Capitol Hill controversies and scandals: a big congressional pay raise in 1989, the resignation of House Speaker Jim Wright under an ethical cloud, the "Keating Five" influence-peddling scandal.

It began to take a toll in the 1990 elections. Although most incumbents still won reelection that year, dozens saw their victory margins drop dramatically, and many lawmakers received their lowest winning percentage ever. The dark mood of the electorate grew even darker in 1992, after controversy surrounding the widespread abuse of Congress' in-house bank drove many incumbents into retirement and helped defeat several more. Perot's presidential campaign gave national focus to anti-Washington sentiment.

Public fury turned partisan in 1994, when Republicans directed growing anti-Congress sentiment toward Clinton and his fellow Democrats. That's when Price began notifying the police whenever he held a town hall meeting. "There was a menacing atmosphere," he recalled.

Angry constituents--often given new voice by a phalanx of conservative talk-radio hosts--flocked to lawmakers' town hall meetings and filled their mailbags with complaints about tax increases, Clinton's health care initiative and the indulgences of incumbency.

All that helped catapult the GOP into control of Congress in 1995. But by the 1996 elections, it was the Republicans who were worried about facing constituents. Many voters were upset, fearing that the GOP was taking its mandate for change too far when it tried to scale back environmental protections, proposed to rein in the costs of Medicare and pushed a budget fight with Clinton to the point that parts of the government had to shut down. Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) still remembers facing an angry mob at a town meeting at which anti-GOP protesters carried signs with a red line slashed through his name.

Since the 1996 elections, however, both Clinton and the Republicans have lowered their sights and dropped their most controversial aims. They reached agreement on a plan to balance the budget and cut taxes. The economy has soared. Heading into the 1998 congressional elections, things have been looking up for incumbents.

"In a time of really good economic fortunes, it's really hard to sustain the mad kind of politics we've experienced earlier in the 1990s," said Charles O. Jones, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin.

Republicans argue that the change in political climate is a vote of confidence in their performance since taking over Congress in 1995. The balanced-budget plan did neutralize at least one of the major issues that fueled Perot's populism.

"People are fairly content, and I think a lot of it has to do with us keeping our promises," said Mary Crawford, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "That goes a long way toward mitigating bad feelings toward Congress."

If people are feeling more disconnected from Washington politics, some Republicans argue that's not necessarily a bad thing--and may even represent a triumph of conservative ideology.

"Our whole point was that Washington shouldn't be the heart and soul and center of the universe, that it's far more important for the American family to run its own affairs," said Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "If we make ourselves less important, we're winning."

But others are less sanguine and see in public attitudes toward government signs of growing disengagement. Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, says his surveys show declining public concern about a whole range of policy issues--even in areas such as "family values" or health care, where there is no particular reason to be less concerned.

Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, says he is troubled by his students' increasing cynicism and lack of interest in politics. "I have a class of 300 students, and this is the most disengaged I've ever seen."

The audience for talk radio, a loudspeaker for anti-Congress sentiment in the early 1990s, has begun to drop. Limbaugh has seen his weekly audience slide from about 20.5 million to 19.5 million since the beginning of this year, according to an analysis by Talkers magazine, a trade publication.

Michael Harrison, editor of the magazine, attributes the industry slippage to a sharp drop in interest in partisan politics since the 1996 election.

"In the early 1990s, there was a feeling that there were good guys and bad guys, reformers and reactionaries, insiders and outsiders, and some kind of progress in politics was possible," Harrison said. "Since the 1996 election, people feel it is only so much talk. The leading players are boring."

Support for term limits still registers high in opinion polls, but advocates have abandoned their drive for a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on Congress.

Faced with unfavorable court decisions and a Congress that voted it down twice, term-limit advocates are now reduced to asking candidates to voluntarily impose limits on themselves.

"The cause is over," said Cleta Mitchell, a former term-limit activist who now is an official of the National Federation of Independent Business, where she is coordinating a campaign to abolish the federal Tax Code. Mitchell says she sees some of the populist fury that fueled the drive for term limits now being directed at the Tax Code.

But so long as public anger is directed at the IRS and not at Congress, the political climate of the 1998 elections will be substantially different from the last four elections.

"Here I am running for my third term, and there is no one out there beating down the roadways to run against me," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who faces no opposition.

Republicans who used to run as rebels ready to upend the Washington establishment will be campaigning next year as proud members of the establishment that produced a balanced-budget package, a tax cut and other good things.

"People will still campaign as reform advocates," said Crawford of the GOP campaign committee. "By the same token, our members are able to campaign on the achievements they have made in the reform area."

"You can't just stand up there anymore and say, 'I'm an outsider! I've never seen the Washington Monument except in pictures!' and expect people to say 'Thank God!' " said Anita Dunn, a Democratic political consultant. "For the first time in this decade, people are feeling comfortable about their personal economic circumstances."

But politicians and their advisors remain cautious about relying too much on the political buoyancy provided by such transient factors as the economy, the popularity of the budget-balancing agreement or populist exhaustion. An economic downturn, a year of unproductive partisan bickering or absence of a strong message from either party could be enough to reignite populist passions.

"Voters may have given up on throwing the bums out," Sanford said. "But I would describe it as a lull before the storm, not a plateau wherein frustration with incumbents is a thing of the past."

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