Values May Be Up Front in Campaign Wars
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 1999; Page A3
As he rode toward landslide reelection last fall, Texas Gov. George W. Bush plastered the sides of his bus with two words: "opportunity" and "responsibility."
That was two-thirds of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign slogan; only "community" was missing. And Al Gore, Clinton's choice for a successor, wants the winning mantra back.
Now, as they gaze enviously at Bush's sky-high popularity ratings, the vice president and his allies are rushing to prevent the GOP's leading "compassionate conservative" from dominating the values debate in the 2000 presidential election.
Where Clinton won the political center with issues targeting middle-class families, Bush and Gore are now trying to appeal to that same group of voters by focusing on unresolved problems in education, long-term care, substance addiction and childhood poverty.
Since the tragedy at Columbine High School and public concerns about the deterioration of the social fabric of the country, many candidates are framing the political dialogue around the place of religion and civility in American society.
In a detailed report issued yesterday, the mainstream Democratic Leadership Council argues that the public's desire for a new civility in America may push the culture wars front and center in the next campaign.
"The 2000 presidential campaign will largely be a battle for who defines the public ethic in this country," said DLC President Al From.
Gore, who attended divinity school and routinely quotes the Bible on the campaign trail, is planning a major speech on the role of faith in public life.
If Clinton was the politician who recast the character debate from private behavior onto public ideals, Gore hopes to be the president to move one step further, fully integrating the role of community and religious organizations into solving an array of social problems.
"Clinton has been clear in talking about values but has left the expression of them in secular terms," said Gore policy adviser Christopher Edley. "Gore is adding a willingness to recognize the role of faith as an indispensable vehicle for discussing and strengthening values."
Bush meanwhile, says he will run on his Texas record, touting programs that help pregnant teenagers, illiterate adults and jailed convicts--all through partnerships with private, often faith-based, organizations. His top domestic adviser, Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, is one of the nation's leading proponents of leveraging the good deeds of community groups with small infusions of government money.
"It will be a huge theme," said Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes. "The whole need to change to a culture of responsibility and teach children to accept responsibility in life will be a major part of the governor's message."
Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio), weighing a bid for the presidency, said the school massacre in Littleton, Colo., has heightened interest in shared public values.
"Littleton creates in our society a whole new discussion about what are we going to do to stop this violence?" said Kasich, author of a book on community-based solutions and an advocate of changing the tax code to benefit charities and charitable giving.
Yet Kasich said politicians risk alienating voters whenever they drift onto the topic of morals. "When you talk about values and God there is a large segment of the public that turns you off because too many people in public life--ministers and politicians--have used values as a wedge issue," he said.
Both parties face some credibility problems, said From. "For Democrats, we have to speak credibly on fiscal discipline, crime and welfare before people will listen to us on other issues," he said. "For Republicans, they have got to be credible on the compassion issues or people won't listen to them on the others."
But as Gore's strategists concede privately, Bush may be the first prominent Republican in a long time to blend his cultural conservatism with more tolerant rhetoric.
"The thing Governor Bush has going for him is that he's able to make statements about the importance of religion and do it in a way that's non-threatening," said Marvin Olasky, a noted author and informal Bush adviser. "It's not just the words but the melody too."
So far, the early wrangling over values has centered more on who was there first.
"George Bush is not original when it comes to this," said Gore strategist Elaine Kamarck. "It's no accident he's stealing the DLC themes because they are, in fact, winning centrist themes." She said Gore is the logical person to build on Clinton's welfare reform plan.
In Austin, the Clinton-Gore claims of owning the values debate drew guffaws.
"To talk about responsibility you have to demonstrate responsibility in your own life," said Hughes. "Governor Bush has been a responsible leader of Texas." He has bills pending in the state legislature that would help create mentoring programs, encourage abstinence and teach character in the schools.
In fact, said the Cato Institute's Stephen Moore, "I don't see a huge difference now between the ideology of Democrats and Republicans on cultural issues. More and more, they are merging."
Yet there are subtle differences in the approaches, he acknowledged. "The right tends to be more moralistic and the left tends to be more government interventionist."
For the most part, Republicans remain skeptical of direct government contracts with religious and charitable organizations. Bush, for instance, prefers voucher systems in which the recipient--whether it is a single mother in need of child care or a drug addict looking for treatment--would essentially "shop" for assistance.
Olasky said the Clinton-Gore model relies more heavily on government programs while the Texas governor embraces a "holistic" approach by the private organizations.
One acknowledged weakness in the philosophy marketed by Bush and Goldsmith though is how to run for president pitching local solutions. But Goldsmith said: "I'm a bit skeptical of national approaches to grass-roots problems."
Some leaders at the extremes of both parties, albeit for very different reasons, object to any religious involvement. Liberals and libertarians argue such partnerships threaten the separation of church and state, while many conservatives worry any relationship with government compromises a religious group's principles.
Mark Penn, the Clinton-Gore pollster whose survey was part of yesterday's DLC report, contends public attitudes have shifted.
His poll found that 78 percent of the people surveyed support allowing church groups to play a larger role in solving social problems.
And a majority said individuals who receive government assistance--from food stamps to college loans--ought to give something back.
"The people are ahead of the politicians," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), chairman of the DLC. "The fight now will be over who has the best ideas to enact this civic responsibility."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company