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POWER BROKERS NOW RUNNING SCARED

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What is happening in Washington is astonishing. As in more repressive societies, power brokers are suddenly afraid of the people.

The tidal wave of "we're-mad-as-hell-and-we-won't-take-it-any-more" rage that has toppled one government after another is buoying Americans, too.Congress was left disdainfully alone to muddle along spending the people's money until the perceived arrogance of longtime incumbents became too much for many to bear.

Check-bouncing, perquisites bought with tax dollars and, finally, the perception of incompetence and being out of touch with ordinary people have ignited an uproar.

Clarence Thomas' place in history as the next Supreme Court justice was not in doubt until the Senate got worried about what women back home would think if the senators didn't consider an allegation of sexual harassment against him before they voted.

President Bush's popularity, bought with foreign affairs luck and expertise, was sky-high until the recession stayed too long.

Financially strapped and anxious Americans began feeling he didn't seem to be worried about it.

Usually what goes on in Washington seems so remote and disconnected from real lives that only the most politically interested and connected people respond with outrage.

But now American voters are saying collectively and ominously, "Listen to us! If democracy is so great everywhere else, why isn't it working at home?"

That's partly behind the outrage that sent thousands of Americans to their telephones to make long-distance calls demanding a full investigation of a charge that Thomas sexually harassed a personal assistant a decade ago.

No matter who is telling the truth - and probably both Thomas and his accuser believe they are - how could Congress let a matter of such dignity and importance as a Supreme Court confirmation become such a mess?

Mounting frustration is one reason why the White House is keeping a nervous watch on polls that show Bush's popularity falling from a phenomenal and unsustainable 90 percent after the Persian Gulf war to the low 60s.

Public frustration is why the Democrats are frantic. How do they translate this national anxiety into votes when most of their candidates are spouting the old cliches without new solutions?

House lawmakers are so afraid of the people that they are going to close their private bank, the one that imposed no fees on overdue checks.

They've put themselves under new rules so that basic civil rights - and prohibitions on such behavior as sexual harassment - now apply to House members and staffers.

The Senate has not gone that far - a Senate staffer who alleges sexual harassment has no legal recourse - but its sudden embarrassed decision to postpone the vote on Thomas also shows fear of the voters.

The real question, however, is whether the anger will express itself in voting booths next year.

Of those who vote, the prevailing opinion has been that somebody else's office holders are the louses.

Most think, "My guy - who sent my grandmother a birthday card and a flag that flew over the Capitol and invited me to his annual ice cream social - is OK."

But if public rage persists, incumbents could be in trouble, even brandishing name recognition and full war chests.

A lot of people in Washington, including the thousands who work here on the staffs of politicians, are unnerved. The Soviet Red Star may not be the only political star that falls.

(Ann McFeatters covers the White House for Scripps Howard News Service.)