WASHINGTON — With a great rhetorical flourish earlier this year, President Clinton solemnly declared that "the era of big government is over."
But almost from that moment forward, Clinton has proposed a seemingly bottomless list of new government initiatives targeted at problems from teenage smoking to television violence to rising college tuition costs.
Bob Dole, meanwhile, is rapidly escalating his efforts to brand Clinton as "an old-style, dyed-in-the-wool, big-spending liberal." Yet even as he indicts the president as someone "who will take every opportunity to increase the size of government," Dole is resolutely refusing to detail what government programs he would cut to pay for his 15% across-the-board cut in income tax rates.
These contortions catch both parties trying to bridge what has become perhaps the most treacherous cross-current in American politics. In their views of Washington, polls consistently show voters to be firmly of two minds: implacably hostile toward big government in principle, yet in practice ferociously protective of many specific government activities.
With Dole trying to frame the election as a referendum on the scope and role of government, the campaign's final month could be shaped largely by the tension between these conflicting attitudes.
To the extent Dole can force the campaign into a broad ideological debate over government's role in society, he is likely to gain. To the extent Clinton can paint Dole as an opponent of specific government initiatives that retain wide support--like Medicare and the new Family and Medical Leave law--the president is likely to fortify his lead.
In other words, Clinton wants voters to look at government as a line of sturdy, beneficial trees; Dole wants them to see it as an undifferentiated forest of rules, restrictions and waste.
"We are trying to make people understand how he is trying to preserve the overall forest," says John Buckley, the Dole campaign's communications director. "He is trying to hold up the bounty of each individual leaf."
These contrasting strategies flow from conflicting public attitudes. American views of government are intensely contradictory--at times virtually incoherent. Polls consistently show endemic suspicion of Washington and a general sense that government is too large, too intrusive and too expensive: Asked if they'd prefer a smaller government with fewer services or a larger government with more services, Americans picked smaller government by more than 2-1 in a recent Times survey.
But majorities that large, or even greater, usually express support for many particular government activities, from spending on Medicare and education, to environmental, food safety and occupational health regulation, to gun control and the family leave law.
Some threads of consistency wind through these divergent responses. Voters tend to believe as much as half of every government dollar is wasted: that tends to make them simultaneously suspicious of new spending proposals and resistant to proposed spending cuts. Voters can tell themselves that budget-cutters should instead focus on eliminating waste. And the distrust of meddling government regulation is offset by an even more powerful distrust that business left to its own devices will protect the environment or produce safe products.
Yet at some fundamental level, public attitudes about government don't meet at right angles--which has created enormous problems for both parties over the past four years. "It is impossible to govern clearly by public opinion," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, "because public opinion is contradictory."
In 1993, Clinton came into office convinced he had a mandate to invigorate government after the torpor of the George Bush years; but he found it impossible to translate that broad sentiment for change into support for his specific agenda, particularly his plan to increase government control over the health care industry. Clinton's excesses fueled the 1994 gains of Republicans, who ran everywhere as opponents of "big government."
Led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), congressional Republicans interpreted their 1994 landslide as a mandate not only to resist Clinton's proposed expansions of government, but to launch their own reductions in federal spending and regulation. But they miscalculated as badly as Clinton: Once the debate moved from the broad principle of shrinking Washington toward specific changes in programs like Medicare, support for the GOP Congress withered.
Clinton appeared to emerge from last winter's budget battles with the most politically defensible formulation. On the one hand, he bowed toward the general suspicion of government by rhetorically interring "the era of big government" and putting forward his own plan to balance the federal budget over seven years.