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Pushing the pigs aside requires standards of political behavior

I'm not sure what station was on the car radio, but my ears pricked up when the fellow started quoting his grandmother "the water won't clear up until you get the hogs out of the creek" and going on to conclude that hogs don't move because you call them politely. "You have to get in there and shove." It does seem to be a time when we have more than our share of politicians and businessmen wallowing. Whether the voters are going to get in and shove may be the story of the upcoming election and the next year or two. Just to note a few of the most visible examples:

Item: Michael Milken, who made more millions of dollars a year putting companies deep in debt than most anybody else makes in a lifetime, convicted of breaking the securities laws everybody else has to obey, is presenting the defense at sentencing that he is really a good guy after all. And he can hire wonderfully persuasive people to make his case.

Item: The leadership of the Florida Senate has been running legislation past the special interests on its way to enactment. It wasn't concerned enough to even hide what it was doing, but kept decent notes on who said what about which bills.

Trying, in the name of ethics, to do something about the free trips and gifts the legislators have been getting from the special interests, a special committee finds itself immediately embroiled in an argument over whether it is wrong to take these blandishments (you want to call them bribes, but that's a specific legal term) or whether the only fault is in failing to report them properly.

To fall back on the Central Florida pig metaphor, it does appear they aren't going to walk away from the trough all on their own.

Item: Gov. Bob Martinez, running a campaign heavily reliant on attack television, seizes on one less than entirely polite ad from his all-too-bland opponent Lawton Chiles and announces "see, he's a meanie too." Martinez continues to present himself as an anti-tax outsider, despite the fact he is the incumbent and has presided over more tax increase than any previous governor.

Item: The prolonged squabble over the federal budget ought to be about the most important issues, such as how much we wish to tax ourselves, how much to spend on war machines, and what our obligation is to children and the disadvantaged. Instead we seem to be getting the same old party bickering over the same old budget line items. Start challenging business as usual and who knows _ the next thing might be to vote a few incumbents out of office. Better not let that genie out of the bottle, so you be nice to my special interest and I'll be nice to yours.

Judging more by the conversations I hear as I move around, and the letters to the editor, than on any formal political discourse, this leaves us with a lot of voters, perhaps even most of us, feeling we want to do something to change the way things have been going. But not much is coming from the politicians about what we might set as the new standard of behavior if the old is in fact breaking down.

If the election two weeks from Tuesday sees a substantial number of incumbents voted out of office, that will confirm that my suspicion that profound change is happening has something to it. If that change does indeed exist, we may also see the election of a number of weird and highly unconventional candidates. At least they'll make good newspaper copy.

If there is anything to this rather pessimistic view of the state of rapport between our citizens and their leaders, it seems to me the worst outcome would be that it confirms the voters' belief that their vote does not matter. We will each retreat into our shell and observe the antics of the rich and venal as a different species, beyond our control.

The best outcome will be if a few leaders succeed in galvanizing the public awareness of its own power. We might then see a renewal of the old American belief that the disadvantaged need our help, not our contempt.

One outcome might be a willingness to establish standards for political behavior. We might even demand that these standards be met. Why it might even come to pass that the current popular belief that rich is better, very rich is best, and obscenely rich is nirvana would be abandoned. We might start to push the pigs aside so the water can run clear for the rest of us.

Andrew Barnes is editor, president and chief executive of the St. Petersburg Times.