WASHINGTON -- The first reaction to Vice President Dan Quayle's "poverty of values" speech has to be amazement at the chutzpah involved in such a biting attack on the poor from a smooth-faced politician who never in his life had to worry about his next meal.
Examined more closely, however, it is clear that the vice president has written a conservative manifesto on the problems of the cities that is likely to be the basis of ideological division throughout the 1992 campaign. With the bark off, the message is that there is no point in spending government money on the inner cities until the culture there adopts values matching those of the middle class in Huntington, Ind.
In his speech to a well-barbered audience at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Quayle adopted the time-honored technique of Richard M. Nixon and Spiro T. Agnew and first set up a straw man by suggesting he was replying to apologists for the rioters who killed and looted in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict. "I'll readily accept that we need to understand what happened," said Quayle, "but I reject the idea we should tolerate or excuse it." Just who the vice president believes has been "excusing" or "tolerating" more than 50 deaths in the worst riots in the nation's history was not explained, although it might be a good guess that he meant those sappy liberals again.
The "poverty of values" was defined this way: "Our inner cities are filled with children having children, with people who have not been able to take advantage of educational opportunities, with people who are dependent on drugs or the narcotic of welfare. To be sure, many people in the ghettos struggle very hard against these tides -- and sometimes win. But too many feel they have no hope and nothing to lose. This poverty is, again, fundamentally a poverty of values.
"Unless we change the basic rules of society in our inner cities, we cannot expect anything else to change. We will simply get more of what we saw three weeks ago. New thinking, new ideas, new strategies are needed," he said.
Although he paid lip service to the Bush administration's modest agenda for the cities, Quayle made it clear where the lines should be drawn. "We can start by dismantling a welfare system that encourages dependency and subsidizes broken families," he said. "We can attach conditions -- such as school attendance or work -- to welfare. We can limit the time a recipient gets benefits. We can stop penalizing marriage for welfare mothers. We can enforce child support payments."
In political terms, Quayle's rhetoric has an obvious appeal to conservatives who like simple solutions. After all, who's against happy families and the Judeo-Christian ethic? It is the kind of speech the vice president could take on the road this fall as the "pit bull" of the Bush-Quayle re-election team.
And it is also the kind of rhetoric that sets Quayle apart from Jack Kemp, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development who has been preaching the gospel of a Republican Party that might attract blacks as well as whites from Indiana. To the degree that juxtaposition is accurate, it could foreshadow the competition for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996 -- assuming, of course, that Quayle is not sent to political oblivion by a Republican loss this year.
But the sting in the Quayle message is sharp enough to suggest it is not one that can be delivered without paying some political price. Blacks will not be the only Americans offended by the lecture on values from the vice president. There is at least a significant minority of Republicans and independents who may be put off by racial polarization.
Quayle's tone also has the effect, intended or not, of underlining the ambivalence that President Bush has displayed in reacting to the riots -- one day talking angrily about law and order, the next appearing to choke up from firsthand exposure to Los Angeles -- without ever displaying any more of a grasp of the problems of the cities than he has demonstrated on other domestic issues.
The Republicans may think they can use a good cop-bad cop routine with their national ticket this fall, but they are kidding themselves if they believe Bush can allow Quayle to play the race card and escape the blame himself.