To Dump Liberalism, Dump Bush

BEN WATTENBERG

October 21, 1992|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington.--I am voting for Bill Clinton for two reasons: George Bush and Bill Clinton. Mr. Bush won't attack liberalism. Mr. Clinton made a break with liberalism.

It's being said that the president has given up. I don't think so. It is worse than that. He has reneged.

The central political issue in America since the mid-1960s has been that the Democratic Party was far too liberal. That hurt Democrats (acceptable), but also hurt America (unfortunate).

Our political system self-corrects. When one party goes astray, the other takes advantage of it. Since 1968, the Republicans have taken such advantage, winning almost all the national elections. Ultimately, they perfected and stylized the process.

By 1988, all they had to say was ''L-word.'' The candidate could be McGovern, Carter, Mondale or Dukakis. The issue could be defense, crime, quotas or taxes. The symbol could be Willie Horton or the Pledge of Allegiance. But the theme was constant: The Democrats were too liberal, and too much liberalism hurt America.

Because too-much-liberalism still ails us, the Republicans owe America that argument. The hollow men around President Bush have chosen not to offer it. Is it stupidity? Is it a failure of belief? Have they been scared off by the mindless media? Are their mushy-liberal children looking at them with sad eyes? Does it make any difference?

The Republican argument today is pablum, mush and saccharine. (Which exhausts my edible metaphors.) Do Republicans really think that America's big problems are ''taxes'' and ''trust''? Give me a cake.

An intelligent case can be made that our society is still reeling from runaway liberalism. ''Taxes'' (read big government) may be a part of that issue, but only a part.

The other part concerns social issues. Are we heading toward a society where proportionalism rules, not merit? Are our cities turning into free-fire zones? Is welfare not only wasteful, but counterproductive? Are our schools so lacking in discipline that we can't teach our children? Have we lost a moral compass, giving out condoms and pushing out ethics, moving beyond gay rights to gay glorification?

The case can be made, arguably, that all these problems, and more, stem from the ideology of post-'60s liberalism. It can be extended to show that much of our economic difficulty stems from these values-related situations. (How do you get ''world-class education'' for a ''world-class economy'' with a value-free school system?)

At their Houston convention, Republicans made a tone-deaf pass at some of these social issues under the rubric of ''family values.'' They were trashed, and giggled at, by the reflexively liberal media. Instead of expanding and explaining their theme, they ''backed off.''

Who needs them if they won't fight that fight?

The highest irony is that Governor Clinton is doing a fine job of defending against an attack that Republicans are too fearful to make, or too dumb to understand. Clinton commercials deal with welfare and crime in a tough-minded way. So did the Democratic platform.

Indeed, by stressing ''responsibility,'' Mr. Clinton shows more sensitivity to some of the conservative-style issues than President Bush has. He is running as a ''different Democrat.'' I am nervous about it, but I trust he will govern that way. If Mr. Bush had waged a coherent ideological attack on runaway liberalism, Governor Clinton would have set his markers even more firmly, to America's benefit.

I do not share Mr. Clinton's view that our economy is coming unglued. It is healthy at its core. I am leery of all candidates (including Mr. Bush and Ross Perot) who wave around ''plans'' and incant ''jobs, jobs, jobs'' as if their plans make jobs.

But being president is about more than plans and programs. Mr. Clinton said something at the Democratic convention that rang a bell: ''We can seize this moment, make it exciting, and energizing, and heroic to be American again.''

I like that heroic stuff. It is embodied in Mr. Clinton's organizing principle for an American foreign policy: the promotion of democracy. That is not only America's transcendental cause, but it can become a dynamite domestic political issue. Our two most popular recent presidents peddled American heroism with vigor: John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Bill Clinton has a chance to be that kind of president.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.

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