THE SILLINESS of Vice President Dan Quayle's recent remarks holding television shows responsible for the riots in Los Angeles ("I wish the media were here in the streets with me today," said that old habitue of the streets. "They ought to come to the real world and find out about the future.") should not blind us to their political importance.
David Gergen, of the "MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour," surmised that one consequence of the Los Angeles riots would probably be that the Republicans would forgo playing "the race card" in this year's election, and I found myself agreeing. We were wrong.
There has been no restriction on the minting of code words of racial prejudice, and the time-worn phrase "family values" that the vice president featured in his speech is this year's contribution to the catalog.
"Family values" has become a racial code word because the underlying message is that black people, by failing to keep their families intact, are themselves responsible for the conditions that caused them to riot. The cause of the riots, Quayle seemed to be saying, was not the judicial exoneration of the white police officers seen by the whole world on videotape beating motorist Rodney King, or social neglect of the people living in ghettos, but their own moral failings. It follows that white people should not be either blamed for what happened or asked to help.
The speech has every appearance of a calculated move in an extremely complicated political game. The electoral context is provided by the rise of Ross Perot, whose positions on several issues -- including his call for taxation of the wealthy recipients of benefits of entitlement programs -- seem to have a liberal cast. The Bush administration is apparently aiming to monopolize the conservative vote while letting Bill Clinton and Perot divide the liberal vote.
But there is a broader context. It is, to put the matter briefly, the social and economic decline of the United States and the current lack of political will among the American people to do something to reverse this. The crucial political fact responsible for this lack has been the belief, proffered by the Republican Party and supinely acquiesced in by the Democratic Party, that America's decline is an illusion fostered by "prophets of doom and gloom," and that, in fact, "morning in America" is dawning. Therefore, no sacrifices -- let's say, in the form of raised taxes -- are necessary.
Ever since the first Reagan-Bush victory, in 1980, the unwillingness of most politicians to ask for sacrifices (and the political defeat of those few who, like Vice President Walter Mondale, in the presidential election of 1984, did ask for them) has been like a low ceiling pressing down on American politics.
The politicians have been forced to crawl, and crawl they have. The public, notwithstanding its own role in encouraging this performance, has grown disgusted. It has yet, however, to accept the painful measures necessary to reverse the country's decline.
For while according to the polls most of the public believes the country is "on the wrong track," it is still not ready to pay for recovery. The problem was seen, but the solutions were rejected. The consequence in the presidential campaign has been the search for magic -- for an "outsider" who has discovered a pain-free solution to the country's ills that the foolish "politicians" have somehow overlooked.
It was in this limbo that the Los Angeles riots exploded. They raised the stakes. They made it clear that the cost of continued inaction was not merely continued slow decline but radical social breakdown. And social breakdown might court political breakdown.
The Republican policy of social neglect, together with the Democrats' policy of neglecting the neglect, was placed under new strain. How, with the flames and smoke from the United States' second-largest city reaching up into the sky, could these policies be sustained?
The Quayle speech offers a chilling answer: Blame the victims. No one, under the terms of this solution, will be required to take a dime out of his own pocket to give to others, whether they be poor black people in the burning ghettos or everyone's children and grandchildren.
Anyone who advocates this will be painted a tax-and-spend liberal. If blacks and others are poor, it is their own fault: They abandoned "family values." If they riot, the answer is force. If they riot again, the answer will be greater force.
No major politician has advocated mass repression of the urban poor if another explosion comes, and we can hope none ever will. But that is the direction in which the administration's response to the riots in Los Angeles now points the country. If the worst happens, then the videotape of the King beating will prove to have been not a warning that prompted the country to mend its ways but a preview of its future.
Author Jonathan Schell originally wrote this commentary for Newsday.