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Public Wants Balanced Political Scales


It's been 20 months since the GOP seized control of Capitol Hill in the "Republican revolution" of 1994. That's a long time, politically speaking. Are Democrats now ready to retake the House and Senate with the "Counter-Revolution" of 1996?

There's a chance that might happen. Democratic congressional candidates have held a small edge over their GOP counterparts in recent "generic" polls.

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But overall, many observers say, it's still likely that the 105th Congress will remain Republican. One reason: voters appear to like the current divided state of government, with the White House and Congress in different party's hands.

"People don't trust either party," says Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "As long as there isn't gridlock, people would rather have watchdogs on either side."

Surveys show that two-thirds of voters prefer a divided government. And some tracking polls reveal that when President Clinton's popularity jumps, congressional Republicans tend to get a boost at the same time.

The implication is that many Americans will split their ballots between Republican congressional candidates and Mr. Clinton to maintain the status quo.

If GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole's fortunes surge, this equation could change. His coattails could sweep even more Republicans into office - or his prospective election might cause voters to opt for congressional Democrats as a check.

But not everybody buys the idea that voters like divided government. "A lot of political scientists have told me people do that consciously, but I don't think so," says Republican campaign strategist Ed Rollins. "I don't think voters operate on that level of sophistication."

There's much evidence to suggest that divided government will continue next year, though. For one, it's starting to work. In recent weeks, the interests of Clinton and the GOP Congress have suddenly intertwined to produce a bloom of popular bills.

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Both sides came out smelling like roses. By signing the GOP welfare reform bill, Clinton prevented Republicans from labeling him an obstructionist or a closet liberal. Likewise, by backing a minimum-wage hike, a health-insurance reform measure, and clean water and pesticide bills, Republicans countered Democratic charges that they are extremists who disregard the environment and working people.

Polls suggest this mutual accommodation has served its purpose: burying issues that challengers might otherwise trumpet. According to Humphrey Taylor of the Harris polling firm, this election is already unprecedented in its lack of defining issues.

In past elections, Mr. Taylor says, one topic such as crime, health care, or the economy has been cited by at least 30 percent of voters as their biggest concern. This year, the highest scoring issue is welfare reform, which only pulls about 15 percent. "There's a big scatter of focus," Taylor says. "No single issue leaps off the page."

For incumbents, this is fantastic news: No issues usually means low turnover. But it also reveals how much Clinton and the Republican Congress, led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate majority leader Trent Lott, have married their fates.

Because Clinton's record in the last two years consists mainly of vetoes, his best reelection argument is that voters need him to check the extreme impulses of the Republican Congress. Republicans on the Hill need Clinton to provide political cover for emotionally charged reforms. Without Clinton's support earlier this year, Republicans pushed for changes in Medicare and took a pounding in opinion polls.

"All of the issues Congress faces are nasty - taking stuff away from people rather than giving it to them," says Charles Jones, a University of Wisconsin professor. "In a way, it's not bad to have government divided at a time like this. If one party was in charge, they would surely get blamed."

But Democrats in Congress can take some comfort. In the House, they need only 20 seats to reclaim the majority, a small number by historical standards. As the public's opinion of the Republican congressional leadership continues to hover at record-low levels, Democrats hope to unseat up to 20 of the 70 House freshmen.

BUT the best piece of news for Democrats is that recent "generic" polls suggest voters prefer Democratic congressional candidates over Republicans by as much as 7 percent: a lead larger than the one Republicans enjoyed in 1994.

Nevertheless, analysts give the Republicans a slight edge for several reasons. First, despite their dips in popularity, congressional Republicans have been highly visible for 20 months, and they've ended on a positive note by passing a welfare reform bill.

Second, they've got plenty of cash, especially the freshmen. The average GOP freshman has nearly $300,000 in the bank, about three times the tally for the typical Democratic challenger.

Ed Miller, a GOP pollster, says House Republicans will surely capture several of the 29 open Democratic seats, many of which are in the South where Republicans are gaining in popularity.

The Senate picture is even brighter. According to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, Senate Republicans are "a bit more likely" to win seats. Though each party has 13 seats on the line, Democrats have more tough races, it reports.

But in the end, says Merle Black, political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, elections always come down to "who gets their people energized to vote."

In this area, Democrats may have an advantage. According to Republican consultant Eddie Mahe, many conservatives are frustrated by the GOP's failure to enact much of its agenda.

But Mr. Mahe and others say that regardless of party, voters are not motivated. The question of the hour is whether this apparent apathy is the result of some brewing disgust with the status quo or a reflection of a general contentment with divided government.

"Perhaps the public can live with the split between the President and Congress," says pollster John Zogby. "As long as it produces balanced legislation, moderation on both sides and, ultimately, policy not gridlock."

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