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Can Clinton Give Voters Less and Make It Seem More?

OVER the years, on numerous occasions, I have left Washington for a visit to the hinterlands in search of what Americans are thinking. I've usually been rewarded with a rather precise idea of what John and Jane Doe had on their minds. But not this time. If I were to describe the public mood today the only word I could find would be "enigmatic."

Admittedly, my stay in the Mountain Southwest was a little less than two weeks. But there was time for enough conversing and listening in on other conversations (via radio talk shows), plus reading what newspaper editorials and letter writers had to say, for me to reach this firm conclusion: There's confusion out there, my friends. There's one thing that people seem to be agreed upon. Everyone seems to want it. The other day I was looking at an old Edward G. Robinson movie on TV. Robinson, playing his fa mous gangster-type role, was asked what he wanted out of life. "I want more," he said. "That's it. I want more."

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No doubt about it, most people today do, indeed, want "more." And they seem to feel that it is government's responsibility to give it to them. Not everyone, but a lot of people, particularly those who voted for the president.

After all, President Clinton promised them more. On his recent "campaigning" trip to California, he pushed what he called his "investment" programs and called for more money to be spent for business tax incentives, worker dislocation assistance, job training, and other of his initiatives aimed at lifting the economy. But what is puzzling about so many Americans these days is that, along with the "goodies" they are demanding and have been promised by Mr. Clinton, they also want their taxes untouched or lo wered and the deficit wiped out. That's a mighty difficult if not impossible order. But Clinton promised all that, too, or at least rapid progress in that direction.

I also heard some moaning from people I suspected either voted for Clinton or Perot and abandoned a George Bush they voted for in 1988. They were upset Clinton had decided to increase and not decrease taxes on middle-income people. Clinton spoke to them, too, in California, when he said: "Give me four more years to deliver" on this tax-cut pledge.

A barber in Flagstaff, Ariz., put it this way when volunteering his view of the president and how he was doing: "It's just the same old politics," he said, wasting no more words on the subject.

When I came home I was greeted by an editorial that I found about as puzzling as the people I had just been listening to. In urging the Democrats in Congress to rally behind the president's programs, New York Times pundits conceded that middle-class constituents who helped elect Clinton were "justified" in complaining that he got their votes "because he vowed to lower their taxes, cut wasteful federal spending, and reduce the oversized deficit." The editorial then adds: "What Mr. Clinton now offers them instead is a hundred-billion-dollar tax hike, minimally reduced federal spending, and a deficit barely below George Bush's levels. These are legitimate concerns," this assessment continues, but goes on to take the position that Clinton's overall package, particularly health-care reform, is beneficial and needed; therefore, it is entitled to full Democratic support and passage.

What puzzled me here was this: How can one expect Democrats in Congress to buy this argument? How can they go back to their constituents next year and explain how they had to increase taxes when they had promised most of them tax reductions? Maybe the liberal Democrats from Northern big cities can sell this approach. But conservative and moderate Democrats, especially those from the South, might have difficulty surviving if they have to justify such a spend-and-tax package.

What I have finally concluded is that the reason people are so puzzled is that Clinton has gotten them all confused. Part of this comes from a very imaginative and energetic fellow who, as he did in his first term as Arkansas governor, tends to come up with too many ideas and too many proposals and legislative initiatives. I think he really wants to do all these things. But he out-promises the political realities. The Arkansas voters threw him out for that reason, then elected him later when he publicly recanted.

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The nation can't afford such a learning process on his part. It's time for him to refocus and clarify the picture for the American people.

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