AMERICAN VALUES: CAMPAIGNS FOR THE '90s
Picking Up Votes in a Maze of Ideals
By Dan Balz
There are scenes of the family at work in the garden, canoeing on sun-splashed waters, walking along a road. Old black-and-white photos show a young boy in his Little League uniform and in his graduation gown, as well as his father in a military uniform. In the closing scene, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R) sits at a picnic bench next to his elderly mother.
"You don't get away from some of the values that you were raised with and you took with you when you walked out the door," he says. "They're a permanent part of you."
On first viewing, the ad has all the earmarks of the kind of family values appeal that has been a staple of Republican campaigns. But something is missing. Neither Ridge nor the narrator mentions the phrase "family values."
Politicians campaign now in an environment of competing and sometimes conflicting values. Voters themselves are conflicted particularly those at the center of the electorate torn between public and private morality and wondering how to apply the enduring values of an earlier age to the realities of life today.
For Ridge's campaign, the challenge was to make a family values ad for the late 1990s.
"Rightly or wrongly, the phrase 'family values' has taken on a political meaning that has a downside that no one ever intended," said pollster Bill McInturff, who is working for Ridge's reelection campaign. For some people, he said, "it doesn't leave room for divorced moms, single parents, people of color."
A national survey by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University underscores the challenge candidates today face in trying to attract a wide spectrum of voters with any specific "values" menu.
"Values are the connective tissue" of politics, said Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin, the means by which candidates seek to identify themselves with voters. Candidates wrap themselves in flag and family, in faith in God. They project solidarity with working people, talk tough about criminals, show sensitivity toward children and the elderly and link education to creating opportunity.
But the Post/Kaiser/Harvard survey revealed the clash of values that confronts politicians at every level of government, often leading to seemingly conflicting messages as they try to shape campaigns. Politicians bash big government as they align themselves with popular spending programs. They prize rugged individualism while holding that people should look out for one another. They assert a right of privacy while defending community standards of decency.
The investigation into President Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky has forced the country to engage in an eight-month debate over private conduct and public morality. National polls showing approval for Clinton's performance as president and disapproval of his conduct demonstrate the conflicting values people bring to political life. They are the reason for the frustration Republicans have voiced over the failure of the nation thus far to rally behind an impeachment inquiry, and the reason the White House and Democrats see a glimmer of hope in their present dismal circumstances.
The campaigns of 1998 represent the latest round of the values debate, one in which candidates of both parties are attempting to identify themselves with the stresses and strains and the basic values of family life in the 1990s.
Strategists say the values debate has become more complex, given family structure, two-earner households, concerns about children and aging parents, a bombardment of sexual and violent material, and questions about the proper role of government. "It's about bringing up a family," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, "but we have families that are quite diverse."
In 1996, Clinton fended off Republican attacks about his character by successfully arguing that the values inherent in his public policies were more in tune with the priorities of middle-class families than were those of the GOP.
Republicans this year are trying to show that their conservative, pro-family values are consistent with the needs of ordinary families. To do that, campaigns must create "an insight into the candidate's life," said Republican media consultant Greg Stevens, showing that the candidate "spends time with the family, cares about family, reads to their kids."
Stuart Stevens, whose firm made the Ridge ad, said authenticity is crucial in this era of voter cynicism. "It is a culturally conservative country, but people don't want to feel as if they're being used. They don't want to feel manipulated."
"Political elites tend to talk about this debate in abstracts," said Bill Carrick, a California-based Democratic strategist. "That, in some ways, serves the conservative side of this debate pretty well because everyone in the abstract is for morality. As soon as it gets to real people and real-life examples, it takes on a different dimension."
Republicans claim the country has conservative values, and parts of the Post/Kaiser/Harvard survey back up that overall finding. A series of survey questions, prepared by Paul Sniderman of the University of California at Berkeley, asked Americans to compare two widely held basic values and choose which of the two was more important. In virtually every case, respondents selected the more conservative value as more important. In no case did members of the two major parties end up on different sides, although often in majorities far different in size.
But the poll shows that individual Americans often hold what may seem like conflicting views on values-based issues, and politicians who simply assert that America is in moral decline will not win the debate.
Americans believe simultaneously in compassion and in the power of the individual. More than two in three agreed that "most people who don't get ahead should not blame the system, they have only themselves to blame." But two in three also said they agreed that most people are poor "because of circumstances beyond their control," not because they don't work hard enough.
On the issue of divorce, the American people appear rather evenly divided on whether an unhappy couple should seek a divorce even if they have young children. Half of those surveyed said no, while almost half (46 percent) said yes. But on the question of whether divorce in America should be easier or harder to obtain, 62 percent said harder and only 22 percent said easier.
Even the issue of tolerance produced conflicting attitudes. Two in three said they agreed that "we should be more tolerant of people who choose to live according to their own moral standards even if we think they are wrong." But two in three also said they agreed that "Americans are too tolerant and accepting of behaviors that in the past were considered immoral or wrong."
The survey underscored the degree to which each party now represents internally conflicting coalitions of voters holding strikingly different views on issues such as the size and scope of government, the importance of religion in political life, personal responsibility and the importance of tolerance.
But the two parties remain distinctive in the values that are espoused by a majority of their members.
For example, 48 percent of those surveyed said the government should "take special steps to protect Americans' religious heritage," while 47 percent said "there should be a high degree of separation between church and state." But Republicans favored the first statement by 54 percent to 42 percent, while Democrats supported the second statement by 52 percent to 45 percent.
A bare majority (51 percent) of Americans said the federal government "should do everything possible to improve the standard of living of all Americans," while 46 percent said that that is not the government's responsibility, and that "each person should take care of themselves." But Democrats agreed with the first statement by 64 percent to 34 percent, while Republicans agreed with the second statement by 59 percent to 39 percent.
For political strategists, values become weapons to attract those voters. "Political campaigns tap into values, they don't define them," said Fred Steeper, a Republican pollster. "They make values that already exist relevant. We measure the value that's already out there and which 80 percent [of the public] is on, and then we identify ourselves with the 80 percent and our opponent with the 20 percent."
In every campaign, strategists must choose which values to emphasize. In 1994, Steeper was working for Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar (R), who was running against Democrat Dawn Clark Netsch. The Democrat had proposed an education funding plan that involved shifting the burden of school financing from the local property tax to the state income tax. "All the instincts of the Republicans were to attack her as a tax increaser, which we tested in the polls," Steeper said.
But other research showed that the Democrat's opposition to the death penalty was an even more powerful issue, especially among women, in part because it suggested an underlying set of values on crime and public safety that were at odds with the public. Edgar's campaign ran a series of death penalty ads during the summer and effectively put victory out of Democratic reach before Labor Day. "We may have won that race anyway," Steeper said. "It was a landslide victory because of the introduction of that issue."
The abortion issue represents as clearly as any the clash of basic values: the sanctity of human life vs. the right to personal privacy. Political campaigns often attempt to force voters to choose between the two, when the reality is that many Americans believe strongly in both values.
"We make the assumption that these values can't be reconciled," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "They can. There are people who can sleep at night who care intensely about abortion rights, but they also understand there are two competing values at play."
In states such as California, where the electorate strongly supports abortion rights, Democrats use the issue to reach out for the votes of moderate Republicans, who may be fiscally conservative but socially more liberal. "Abortion has become a permission structure for a substantial group of moderate Republicans to start their exodus from the Republican Party," Carrick said.
Ronald Reagan's presidential campaigns helped Republicans capture the flag and family in the political wars of the 1980s. George Bush used those themes to defeat Democrat Michael S. Dukakis in 1988. Bush hammered Dukakis for supporting weekend furloughs for convicts symbolized by Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a woman while on a furlough and opposing legislation requiring schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
The pledge issue represented another clash of values: patriotism vs. religious freedom. "What Dukakis did not know how to do, and as a result disqualified himself from being president, was to take that attack on him, which was based on patriotism, and turn it into the value of religious tolerance and religious freedom," Jamieson said.
The 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns represented Democratic efforts first to neutralize the GOP advantage on the values front and then to turn it to their advantage.
Greenberg, who was Clinton's pollster in 1992, said the challenge in that campaign was to throw off the burden of the 1960s, which he said was the perception of middle-class voters that Democrats had become so permissive and culturally liberal that they no longer reflected the values of middle-class taxpayers.
"Democrats were seen not to understand the values that were important to mainstream middle-class families," Greenberg said. Those voters, he added, believed that what Democratic politics were doing "was out of touch with the lives of those people."
To counter that impression, Clinton emphasized his solidarity with people "who work hard and play by the rules" and the twin concepts of opportunity and responsibility the first highlighting the traditional appeal of the Democratic Party, the second designed to emphasize a party ready to turn in a new direction.
The issue that he chose to reflect these values was welfare reform, a signal that he valued work over dependence and personal responsibility over government handouts.
Clinton's 1996 team faced a different challenge: to shield the president against attacks about his private behavior and to convince voters that the governing values of the GOP majority in Congress were contrary to the interests of working families.
Clinton media adviser Bill Knapp said a crystallizing debate in the campaign was how to attack Republicans on their efforts to reduce the growth of Medicare what Democrats described as Medicare cuts. One group argued that Clinton should criticize Republicans for cutting Medicare to give the wealthy a tax break. Others said he should slam them for not caring for the elderly.
"It was a fundamental choice," Knapp said. "Were we going to go populist or ... go values? We probed it in polls and found that values was much more powerful."
Republicans charged Clinton with demagoguery on Medicare, but with little success.
Mark Penn, who polled for Clinton in 1996, said turning the family values debate away from moral issues such as abortion, gay rights or prayer in schools to public issues tied up in the budget fights of 1995-96 represented a breakthrough for Democrats. "We said if you're for families, you should be doing things for Medicare and education, the kinds of things that help children and their families," he said.
One Clinton ad captured the argument between private and public character. It featured James Brady, the former White House press secretary wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt against President Ronald Reagan and the man for whom the Brady handgun control act is named. "When I hear people question the president's character, I say look what he's done," Brady says at the close of the ad. "Look at the lives the Brady bill will save."
"When Republicans saw the Brady bill ad, they thought it was a gun control ad," Knapp said. "It's anything but. It's a values ad. ... Anything they tried to make private character an issue, it didn't work. People didn't care because they felt he was doing the job. That should be somewhat reminiscent of the situation we're in now."
Candidates in both parties face big challenges in turning the values debate to their advantage. The best campaigns are those that maneuver best through the conflicting attitudes many Americans hold. "Good campaigns are able to speak to the complexities of people's values," Garin said. "Other campaigns insist on dealing with things in more black-and-white terms." Those campaigns, he said, often pose "one set of values against another set as if the twain shall never meet, when for regular people, the twain meet all the time."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company