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An Ambivalent Public

FROM recent polls, you might conclude the American public is inclined to move in opposite directions at the same time. It likes the landscape painted by Newt Gingrich's Contract With America, but takes issue with the details of the painting.

For instance: By all means reform welfare, but don't cut off 18-year-old unmarried mothers and don't chop benefits after two years to anyone that has the gumption to work. Or an even more classic case: Balance the budget, but don't touch Social Security.

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What's at work here could be the common sense Americans are often credited with by the people they elect. Yes, trim the federal government back, but do it with care. The no-longer-silent majority out there cheering on conservative policies still has a reservoir of compassion toward the poor and the elderly.

A less sympathetic view might hold that Americans are simply impractical when it comes to government -- they want it smaller but they also want it to look after their needs.

The perception of a public traveling two ways at once was most sharply etched by the last two US elections. The election in 1992 of a Democratic president committed to use government to help ''grow'' the middle class implied a public looking for a more activist Washington. The swing back to the Republicans in 1994 implied just the opposite.

People who track public opinion see this pendulum in motion at least since the '60s and the onset of the Great Society -- and maybe back to the New Deal itself. There was, 30 years ago, support for a plunge into activist social policy, though it receded over time, leading to a major change of course during the '80s.

The underlying question is whether American ambivalence toward government -- seen as both an intrusive evil and a positive good -- has clearly shifted, presumably toward the side represented by the Contract. That shift, if it has occurred, may be driven more by pragmatic concern about a government so weighted by debt it will fail future generations than by the philosophic energies of figures like Mr. Gingrich.

What's laboriously being wrought out through the political processes is a rough consensus on what the state's role should be in a world that can never return to isolationism, or the absentee federal government that our grandparents knew.

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