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As U.S. Economy Flows, Voter Vitriol Ebbs

December 22, 1997|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — 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.

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