The Florida state judge said that Elian Gonzalez, age 6, is "threatened" with harm if he goes back to Cuba and its totalitarian oppression.

But if he stays here, in the care of his great uncle, he's in a different kind of danger: He will be spoiled to death. Great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez and all the Cubans in Miami are plying Elian with the treasures of capitalism, a bike, a puppy, pony rides, trips to Disney World. At an age when he should be being taught to say "please," "thank you" and "I'm sorry," he will become the permanent kid in a candy store. He must be kept smiling to show the ever-hovering cameras how he loves being in a democracy. He is, at 6, a 100-proof celebrity on the cover of Time and an issue in the presidential campaign.

The judge's decision in the matter of great-uncle Lazaro's petition for temporary custody was written in terms better suited to a political tract than a judicial ruling. She refers to Cuba as "a living hell." She goes so far as to say that the father, Juan Gonzalez, "by insisting that the boy be placed in the aforesaid environment . . . is engaging in conduct that constitutes abuse and neglect."

Her Honor, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Rosa Rodriguez, was elected by the Cubans of Miami. She is, emotionally, one of them.

The law is clear that a surviving parent--Elian's mother was lost at sea when the leaky boat she took him on sank--absent any evidence of abuse or neglect, keeps the child.

As a nation, we make a cult of honoring blood ties. The policy of family reunification is embedded in our courts and welfare agencies. The horrendous consequences caused by social workers who prevail on susceptible judges to return children to neglectful or abusive parents fill volumes. Juan Gonzalez would be amazed at the lengths we go to oblige parents unworthy of the name.

In Washington now, we have before us the case of a 23-month-old child who was returned to her mother despite a history of neglect. She was murdered. A District social worker sent Brianna Blackmond back to her mother "for the holidays." The child had been in a loving foster home--the mother had been to see her only twice in a year. But to family reunification zealots, there is no such thing as a bad mother, only a woman without the benefit of "parenting classes."

To the Cubans of Miami, Elian is not a little boy in need of love and guidance. He is a gift from the sea, a divinely sent messenger saved from the deep to be used as a club against Fidel Castro. Castro is using the child to whip up anti-Americanism. The Immigration and Naturalization Service ruled that the boy should go home--to his father and four loving grandparents--on Friday. Fat chance. The judge has put off an evidentiary hearing until March.

The judge ordered the father to come to Miami to claim his child. He has declined. He says he fears harm to himself and Elian. Miami says Castro made him say it. But when the INS made its ruling, Miamians staged traffic-snarling protests.

Wisdom is needed. The presidential candidates have all fled the wrath of Miami. Democratic chances to take the state are marginal; Gov. Jeb Bush will deliver for his brother. Why wouldn't Vice President Gore or Bill Bradley, risking little, take on the problem? It involves diplomacy, ethnic politics, family values--all the questions that come rudely knocking at the door of the Oval Office. All it needs is leadership and a resolve to do right by a 6-year-old boy.