Boomers Face Values

BEN WATTENBERG

July 15, 1992|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington--Every four years I offer advice to the Democratic nominees. Normally, they do not take it. Normally, they lose.

Here is a first installment.

By choosing young Al Gore as his running mate, young Bill Clinton has come up with a good-news/bad-news parley.

The good news for Mr. Clinton is that he has made the election a generational one. That is also the bad news: A generational election, involving young Democrats, guarantees it will be about the War for the Culture.

The good news is visible on television: The two candidates are tall, handsome, young, vigorous, idealistic, committed, educated and knowledgeable. The script comes from John Kennedy's 1960 inaugural: ''Let the word go forth . . . that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans -- born in this century, tempered by war . . . proud of our ancient heritage.''

That image, offered when Americans are dismayed and seeking change, is political poetry. Stated and unstated, it will be the Democratic theme this year.

But, alas for Mr. Clinton, this is not just JFK redux. Mr. Kennedy's generation was venerated. They were the guys who won World War II, saved civilization and rebuilt America. The torch was in good hands.

The Clinton-Gore baby boom generation also came of age during a war -- Vietnam. Unlike World War II, that war split America -- and not into equal halves. The baby boom generation we heard about were the elites: anti-war, anti-establishment, pessimistic, isolationist, arrogant -- and Democrats.

They told us that they were ''the best educated generation in American history,'' that they need not ''trust anyone over 30,'' that drugs and sexual permissiveness were super, that a vote for Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern might coax them ''to stay in the system.''

The elite activists represented neither the country nor their co-generationists. Polls showed young Americans more likely than their elders to be pro-war and pro-George Wallace.

Since then Americans have been ambivalent about the baby boom elites. They have been appreciated for their energy and commitment. They have been scorned for their values, which are seen as permissive, liberal, sanctimonious and out of touch. Republicans regularly captured the presidency by waging class warfare, linking Democrats to the perceived values of baby boom elitists.

What can Bill Clinton and Al Gore do about the Values onslaught that will come again?

Two strategies are available: Acknowledge it or trivialize it. Pick the wrong strategy, and lose the election.

Wisely, the Democratic platform acknowledged it. By calling for a ''Third Way,'' renouncing the Democratic Left as well as the Republican Right, it showed that the new Democrats finally got it.

But at the first Clinton-Gore press conference, Mr. Clinton was asked about Republican charges that he and Mr. Gore were liberals and vulnerable on values. Bristling, and trivializing it, Mr. Clinton said, sure, that's what Republicans always do, trot out the L-word and Values whenever they're losing.

Of course, Republicans trot it out every four years. But it works because it resonates with a generally wise electorate. They know that the L and V words are at the core of America's biggest problems.

Consider the tortured web of domestic issues. The liberal assault on the criminal code eroded the odds that ''crime does not pay,'' thereby increasing crime. The erosion of marital values led to more out-of-wedlock birth and more single-parent households. That yielded more welfare, more poverty, more crime, worse education, more taxes and bigger deficits.

Liberals say that's all demagogy, that we need better programs. Perhaps. But you never get the programs right until you get the values right.

The right answer on the L and V words for Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore is this: ''Well, yes, many Democrats did indeed have some real problems on those issues. But not us. Not now. Not anymore. We understand.''

Will the voters believe that? The campaign is a marathon, not a sprint. Sooner or later, a lot comes out, often reflexively. It will be credible only if the candidates believe it. If they do, they may win, to the glory of their party, their country and their generation.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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