Democrats Walk into a Social Trap

BEN WATTENBERG

February 12, 1992|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON. — The polls say that Sen. Paul Tsongas can win the New Hampshire primary. Tsurprise! More important, Mr. Tsongas has shown that a Democrat can break with knee-jerk liberalism on one of the two big problems haunting the party -- and not go to the penalty box when primary votes are counted.

Mr. Tsongas concedes he is -- just imagine! -- ''pro-business.'' He says you can't be ''pro-employee'' these days without being ''pro-employer.'' Many of his other economic ideas also make sense. He is against trade protectionism and for a capital-gains cut. He thinks the middle-class tax cut is silly. He even says we need nuclear power -- heresy for a liberal Democrat.

If a Democrat can break liberal taboos on the Economic Issue, what next? Will some Democrat finally have the guts to face the Social Issue?

In 1970, I co-authored a book with Richard Scammon titled ''The Real Majority.'' Its thesis was elemental: The old single-issue electoral model (the Economic Issue counts above all) had been replaced by a two-pronged version (the Social Issue is of equal weight, and can be a wipe-out issue.)

What is the Social Issue? You know it when you see it. Consider the words that have touched upon its essence in recent decades: crime, race, values, busing, drugs, ''Blame America First,'' disruption, quotas, welfare, homosexuality, pornography, patriotism, draft-dodging, dependency, permissiveness, capital punishment and perhaps, and alas, personal sexual history. (We shall see about that.)

The SI surfaced in the 1960s and hasn't gone away. It was up front in 1988 when the Republicans used flags, the Pledge of Allegiance -- and Willie Horton. It was on the anvil again recently when used by David Duke in the ugliest way.

Over the years, liberal Democratic interest groups have arrogantly said that the SI is mere demagoguery, that SI concerns are not ''real'' issues. They have cowed the candidates into silence. That sets up a difference between the parties, making the issue salient.

But voters decide which issues are real. Many of them are afraid to walk the streets of their neighborhoods. They resent paying taxes to support the indolent indigent. They want to compete equally, without quotas.

Voters are right to assign a high priority to the SI. It's at the root of our most serious domestic problems. Thus, American poverty is mostly now due to the high rate of households with only one parent, a condition not ascribable to mean Ronald Reagan.

The SI will likely be big in 1992 for another reason: With little to brag about in a sour economy, Republicans need it. Because the issue of race is tied into many aspects of the SI, the campaign may well get heated, making 1988 look genteel.

As it stands now, Democrats will be characterized (at least) as pro-quota and pro-welfare. As Mr. Tsongas has done with economics, they ought to start talking sense about the SI before it is forced upon them. The silence is almost total.

Only Gov. Bill Clinton has had the courage to touch the issue, albeit gingerly. He favors capital punishment. And he says this about welfare: ''We're going to put an end to welfare as we know it. . . . Welfare should be a second chance, not a way of life.''

Ironically, it is now harder, but more necessary, for Mr. Clinton to go further. The roots of the Social Issue are tightly wrapped up with American attitudes toward the perceived values and lifestyle of an entire cohort of American liberals who were young in the 1960s. (All the current crop of Democrats qualify.) Sex and the draft won't alone sink a candidate; but the whole constellation of SI concerns can easily sink them all if not addressed.

Republicans, campaigning amongst themselves, are quiet now on SI. But the Bush campaign has hired the election consultants who have nailed Democrats on the quota issue. The SI attack will come, and it's a real issue.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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