WASHINGTON -- President Bush is fighting the last war with his emphasis on "values" as the centerpiece of his campaign for re-election. It is a dirty little war, and this year it may even be a losing one.
On the face of it, there is nothing sinister in the president's telling the crowd at a stock-car race in Daytona, Fla., that the race drivers are "epitomizing the best, the best in sportsmanship, the best in family, the best in patriotic values." Nor is there anything untoward in his telling the drivers themselves: "If ever a group of people stood for family values, for what we call traditional American values, it's this crowd." For all we know, everyone at Daytona may have been a candidate for sainthood.
It might even be excusable to call Faith, N.C., "a town with all-American values" despite the fact it is an all-white community that was the scene of a Ku Klux Klan rally a year ago. "Don't let anyone knock your town," he said in Faith. "You stand with me against bigotry and racism."
But let's not kid the troops here. When candidate Bush goes to a stock-car race or to Faith, N.C., he is trying desperately to identify himself once again with a constituency that was essential to him four years ago: white, working class, culturally conservative voters who were convinced in 1988 that Michael S. Dukakis was soft on crime because of Willie Horton and soft on patriotism because he would not force Massachusetts schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.
When candidate Bush talks about those who share his idea of "family values" and "traditional American values," the implication plain that there are other folks who don't. Could they be the liberals who support Bill Clinton? It is a clearly political and even more plainly divisive approach to the campaign of 1992.
But whether this strategy from 1988 will work a second time is an open question. Given the national condition, voters may wonder whether they want a president who assures them they have the right values or one who has a plan for dealing with an unemployment rate of 7.8 percent. The 10 million Americans who are out of work today could be excused if they were looking less for a self-anointed moral leader and more for someone who might offer effective approaches to their problems.
Four years ago, despite eight years as vice president, George Bush was largely an unknown figure to most voters, as was Dukakis. The electorate's decision would be based primarily on what they saw in the campaign. And candidate Bush used what he called these "values" issues to define Dukakis in terms the electorate would not accept and thus, by implication, to define himself as the acceptable candidate who, most of all, was not Michael Dukakis.
But now Bush has four years as the most visible figure in the world. The voters know him as the president who led the Desert Storm war against Saddam Hussein, but also as the president who ignored domestic concerns until the next campaign arrived and he began his slide in the public opinion polls. There is too much of a context for Bush to win simply by identifying himself with patriotism and family values.
But Bush doesn't seem to have any other weapons at his disposal. His idea of dealing with domestic problems is to reiterate proposals that would attack such problems as health care and education only at the margins. So the only alternative seems to be the diversionary emphasis on matters with some ostensible moral content. Thus, on his Southern swing, he repeated his call on Congress to adopt a constitutional amendment to permit prayer in the public schools.
In some respects, Bill Clinton might seem to be an easy target for this approach. The Gennifer Flowers episode, the controversies over his draft history and when, where and how he smoked marijuana clearly tarnished the Democratic candidate even as he was on the rise toward the nomination.
But in the year of Ross Perot the voters seem inclined to put those issues behind them in favor of more substantial stuff. For the first time, recent polls show Clinton with a favorable rating higher than his unfavorable one, while Bush's trend has been in the other direction. The emphasis on "values" shows he is clearly stuck for an answer.