WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The Bush campaign butchered the ''values'' issue, and has now backed off it -- even though it is at the root of America's most serious problems. They butchered it because too many Bush campaigners are country-clubbers who don't understand the issue, don't believe in it, are ashamed of it, are cowed by the liberal press, are gutless, or most of the above.
So now there is much talk about the cabinet choices of a ''President Clinton.'' And it is time to think about how a Clinton administration might deal with these issues, many of which, ironically, stem from Democrats, liberals and their constituency groups.
Consider education. Mr. Clinton says that without ''a lifetime of learning'' America won't be able to compete commercially. There are indeed certain aspects of our public education system, particularly in urban secondary schools, that are in shambles.
Once upon a time, students were promoted only if they had mastered the required work. Their grades reflected their progress. A student who didn't do the work couldn't get into college, or couldn't get a good job. An unruly student could get booted out of class.
In many inner-city schools, and elsewhere, much of that is gone, driven out in part by super-sophisticated, feel-good, liberal theorizing. Students are often promoted ''socially.'' Their grades are inflated. Colleges accept most anyone and don't flunk paying customers. Rowdies aren't disciplined because minority politicians will cry racism. Employers, knowing school grades mean little, fearing quota legislation, often don't hire on the basis of school transcripts.
And so, to some students, a question forms: ''Why should I work hard and behave myself?''
There was a very American ''value'' linked to the earlier educational situation. Call it ''reward for work'' or ''you don't get something for nothing.'' Until that values issue is addressed, public education won't recover.
No one understands that better than Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. Often working against the hidebound education establishment, Mr. Shanker has led the push for ''national standards'' as a partial remedy aimed at restoring work-reward values. The Bush administration (more astute than the Bush campaign bozos) has set up independent task forces to come up with voluntary curriculum standards in mathematics, language, civics, science, history, arts and geography.
It's a beginning, but more is needed. The key question is this: Would a President Clinton stand up to liberal interest groups or will he be turned into Carter-like mush?
For example: Liberals in Congress, pushed by the National Education Association, school bureaucrats and civil-rights groups, are balking at a next step, to provide ''assessment'' needed to see whether students are actually learning the new curriculum. Liberals claim that assessment might reveal minorities aren't doing well and keep them from getting jobs. (Is there anything sadder than civil-rights groups opposing efforts to improve education?)
Mr. Shanker asks: How can you restore the work-reward value if you can't even assess whether the work is being done? He goes further: The system also needs ''stakes.'' If students are accepted in college, and hired by employers regardless of whether they have learned the curriculum, what's at stake to motivate the student?
Governor Clinton has a good record in Arkansas for shaking up the education establishment (although, alas, he opposes private-school vouchers, as does Mr. Shanker). But Governor Clinton didn't face the full force of the national liberal establishment that would confront a President Clinton.
A President-elect Clinton's choice for secretary of education will tell much about where he's going. His choices range from the key players in the NEA/education bureaucracy/civil-rights interest groups, to some tough-minded governors, to, perhaps, Al Shanker. We may soon see where Mr. Clinton is headed.
Restoring values -- in education, in the welfare system, in the criminal-justice system -- is at the root of our tough problems. Without such restoration we face slower economic growth and a further brutalization of civil society.
The Republicans can't seem to express that, or act on it. Perhaps Democrats, who caused a lot of the problems, deserve a crack at cleaning it up.
Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.