Gore: Government regaining public trust
Vice President Al Gore recently sat down with National Journal White House correspondent Alexis Simendinger to discuss the survey of public officials conducted by the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press in association with the magazine. Some edited excerpts:
Q: There seems to be a perception gap among government insiders on the level of public distrust. They think it's worse than the public really says it is.
A: I'm not surprised. I think it's more accurately described not as a disconnect but as a lag, because large impressions of this kind take time to move from the public's mind to the minds of people who work in government. There are other, similar lags--I'll give you an example. For quite some time, there was a lag between the improvement of the economy's performance and the recognition of that by the public. I always felt that, after a delay, the new reality would begin to sink in.
What you've hit upon here has implications for the way that decisions are made in Washington. Because if the level of distrust was as high as many in government seem to think it is, that would seem to justify a great deal more reticence in taking the initiative to solve problems of importance to the American people.
Q: Even Republicans say they admire the President's understanding of the distinction between the public's general distrust of government and the public's support for specific programs. Do you think Republicans fail to understand the complexity of public opinion about that?
A: I think many do, and I think their failure represents, in part, a desire to cling overly long to an ideological formulation that worked for them during the Reagan years but which no longer works, because the underlying realities have changed. We have promoted the useful nature of self-government in solving problems that must be addressed, while simultaneously reducing the size of government. So I think the world has moved on, and while the era of big government is over, the era of big rewards for bashing big government is also over. Now let me add a caveat. We Americans, for more than 200 years, have been properly skeptical about any power vested in our central government. That's not going to change, nor should it.
Q: Do you think distrust of government can be a good thing?
A: I don't think distrust is. I think skepticism can be. We must be properly cautious about investing too much power permanently in any single place or person or group of persons.
Q: One of the things that exacerbates public distrust of government is that politicians promise too much and then can't deliver on their promises.
A: Well, I guess the subplot in human history is the tension between our reach and our grasp. And in representative democracy, we live with the tension between our dreams and aspirations and our practical ability to realize them. We live in a time, fortunately, when new information technologies and new models in organization theory are transforming many private, and now public, organizations and greatly expanding their ability to do more with less.
That's not just rhetoric. We see it in the computer industry, we see it in the marketplace when businesses startle us with cheaper and better products, and now we're beginning to see it in government agencies.
I don't think we have yet crossed the threshold beyond which people will say, 'Ah, now it's generally recognized that the federal government has dramatically improved its performance, and therefore we can expect to solve even bigger problems more quickly.' I think we're getting there.
Q: Do you have any concern that public trust in government has been damaged by the campaign finance issue of '96 or the current climate of allegations against the President?
A: I think that has to be seen against a backdrop of 35 years of much more serious body blows to the perception of self-government in this country, beginning with the assassinations in 1963 of President Kennedy and Medgar Evers and in '68 of Dr. [Martin Luther] King and Robert Kennedy, and the Vietnam war, Watergate.
I think, on balance, we are in a period of very strong recovery. The nearly unprecedented strength of our economic performance is a major factor, but the improved performance of government in almost every area has added to a gestalt that I believe is lifting the perception people have of our ability to govern ourselves well. We still have a long way to go, and we still face that head wind of cynicism, but it is no longer the gale force it was a few years ago.
Q: You don't think it's had an effect, or you think it's been countered by other good news?
A: I'm not sophisticated enough to measure whatever effect might be there, but I do believe that, overall, we're in a period of recovery.
Q: Do you think we could possibly get back to the pre-Watergate, pre-Vietnam era?
A: Yes, I do.
Q: Would that be good?
A: Of course it would. I think most people would answer your question, 'No, of course not--in the post-modern era, you're never going to see that kind of respect for self-government again.' I disagree strongly. I think we will return to those levels. But only when, and as, we continue the dramatic transformation of government and make it work extremely well, with lower levels of resources required.