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Politics Today: Public wary of Congress' handling of Medicare


SOMERSWORTH, N.H. -- When Lamar Alexander drove away from a campaign stop at the Gateway restaurant here the other day, an accountant named Norman Deane asked a visiting reporter: "What did he say about Medicare?"

Told "Nothing special," Mr. Deane shook his head. "I guess that's to be expected, but these Republicans have got to explain what they're doing with this thing. It seems to be going awfully fast."

Voter concern

At a meeting of Bob Dole supporters in Lebanon the next day, lawyer Charles Greenlee had a similar concern about Medicare: "I don't need it yet, but it won't be long and I wonder if they're not moving too fast."

This is the flesh on the bones of new public opinion polls that show growing uneasiness in the electorate about the rapid pace of Republican reforms since they won control of Congress last year and, in particular, about the radical changes in the Medicare program.

A weekend of conversations with New Hampshire voters, at Republican meetings and elsewhere, suggests that the Democrats have enjoyed some success with their warnings about Medicare.

A new poll conducted for CNN found, for example, that only 32 percent of voters describe themselves as favoring the Republican Medicare plan, compared to 51 percent who oppose it. And only 34 percent said the United States would be "better off" under the Republican plan compared to 45 percent who said "worse off."

Not just Medicare

Nor is the concern about the Republican program limited to the Medicare issue. A new survey published by the Wall Street Journal found only 32 percent of voters agree with the direction Congress is moving, compared to 45 percent who disagree. The comparable figures were 41-39 in July, 48-22 last January.

One inference that may be drawn from the figures -- and from random interviews with voters -- is that the Republicans misinterpreted the message of their 1994 election triumph.

No one questions the proposition that the voters were turning angrily against Democratic liberalism and congressional insulation from the electorate. Nor does anyone knowledgeable about the 1994 campaign doubt that the vote was a rejection of Bill Clinton.

But that is not the same thing as an endorsement of radical change carried out at a breakneck pace. Nor is it the same thing as an endorsement of the most extreme expressions of conservative ideology such as the new assaults on abortion rights.

On the contrary, the polling data underlines something professionals in both political parties understand but sometimes forget -- that voters tend to be cautious about change.

The concern over Medicare is the most obvious, and it extends beyond the beneficiaries themselves. Vincent DeNardis, a truck driver who lives near Gorham, described his concern this way: "My wife and I have three parents on Medicare and we're both over 50, so we want to know what's going to be there later."

Quite beyond the specifics, however, voters remain skeptical about politicians even if they praise the alacrity with which Republicans in Congress have attacked long-standing problems.

"They tell us there's not going to be any pain [from Medicare changes], just a little hurt," said Mr. DeNardis, "but I figure we're going to get whacked."

The Democrats can draw little comfort, however, from the reservations about the pace of the Republican program. Indeed, for many voters, the Democrats are irrelevant to the debate.

"I'm a Democrat," trucker DeNardis said, "but they don't have any answers, so they end up saying let's not change anything. That's no solution."

Negative numbers

That attitude may explain one of the most striking findings of several current polls -- that 55 percent to 60 percent of the voters believe the country is "off on the wrong track" rather than "heading in the right direction." For political strategists, a "wrong track" number that high points to potential problems for incumbents in the next election.

So the bottom line is that although the Republicans are still riding high, they may be overplaying their hands.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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