WOOSTER, OHIO. — Wooster, Ohio. -- In this college town, where the clear air almost crackles with the colors of turning leaves, every prospect pleases and not even man is vile. Or so it seems until you see television.
At 4 p.m., after the steamy soaps have subsided, cable from Cleveland brings the "Montel Williams Show," an excrescence of the talk-show explosion. This day Mr. Williams' subject is adolescents whose recreation is fornication. His guests are slack-jawed teen-age girls and trashy dim-witted boys who tell improbable tales of promiscuity.
Afternoon television this season also includes normal political ads: Candidate A calls Candidate B a reptile. This day, Candidate A is Joel Hyatt, a Democrat seeking the Senate seat being vacated by his father-in-law, Howard Metzenbaum. Candidate B is Lt. Gov. Mike DeWine. He ran a highly negative campaign against John Glenn two years ago so the pummeling he is getting today is condign punishment.
Mr. Hyatt's ad, targeted at the largely female afternoon audience, recounts Mr. DeWine's assaults on American womanhood (he opposes abortion), including this: "DeWine even voted against the Equal Rights Amendment." This is a Democrat's idea of timely accusations?
The ERA has been stone dead for 17 years. Abortion is a closed question, politically. No legislature will pass any law significantly burdening abortion rights, and the Supreme Court would invalidate any such law.
Mr. Hyatt is losing by 16 points according to a Cleveland Plain Dealer poll. State Sen. Robert Burch, Democratic nominee against Gov. George Voinovich, is 38 points behind, which raises a question. If, as Democrats insist, this year's political anger reflects generalized and unideological disaffection from incumbents, why are four more or less conservative Republican governors of the largest Midwestern states -- Mr. Voinovich, Illinois' Jim Edgar, Michigan's John Engler, Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson -- winning?
President Clinton, by campaigning this autumn against Ronald Reagan -- "the failed policies of the past" -- has accepted the Republican challenge to nationalize the elections by making them ideological. Furthermore, he has ratified the conservatives' judgment that this is year six of the Bush-Clinton detour.
During his Inaugural Address Mr. Bush paused to extend his hand to Tom Foley and George Mitchell and said he wasn't there to "quibble." He thought nothing significant divided them. President Clinton, too, is content to put himself in the hands of the old congressional hands because he has no serious complaint about the Washington status quo, however much he talks of "change."
Only two currently debated policy measures promise serious systemic change, which is why Washington loathes them. They are term limits and a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. Mr. Clinton opposes both.
The president warns voters "not to be fooled" by Republican promises. But his real message is: Beware, Republicans really mean it. A sufficient Republican surge this autumn might indeed presage Congress sending such an amendment to the states by spring. By ratifying it, the states would effect a revolution -- a counterrevolution, really -- against Washington.
Until the Civil War, 85 percent of the growth of federal civilian employment was in the post office. It is utopian to hope that Washington would again concentrate on delivering the mail until it gets that right. But passage of a balanced-budget amendment -- particularly one with a supermajority provision requiring, say, a percent congressional vote to raise taxes -- would reduce Washington to delivering the mail, defending the shores and acting as a transfer payment pump, administering existing entitlement programs and paying interest on the national debt.
Such relimiting of the federal government would necessitate a renaissance of federalism. Governors such as Mr. Voinovich -- an outspoken opponent of the unfunded mandates by which Washington conscripts state resources -- would resume their rightful place at the center of civic life. The conservative Midwestern governors who this autumn are getting their mandates renewed may be harbingers of the withering of Washington.
Communities like Wooster can live with that. The College of Wooster exists because in 1865 the Presbyterian Church, believing a college would be useful in redeeming the Ohio portion of this sinful world, offered to help found one in whatever community could come up with $100,000. Wayne County rose to the challenge. In today's America, which has too much Washington and Montel Williams, state and local vitality is the way to challenge a debased national government and culture.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.