Clinton the Co-Opter

January 28, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston.--The TelePrompTer had hardly stopped rolling, the president had barely glad-handed his way out of the House chamber, when the analysts and politicians all began deconstructing his text. Health care, crime, welfare -- they waded through the words looking for portents about policy and clues about compromise.

But from my listening post, way outside the chamber and well beyond the Beltway, I was most conscious of the voice Bill Clinton used. Not just the words of policy but the underlying sound of values:

''In our toughest neighborhoods, on our meanest streets in our poorest rural areas, we have seen a stunning and simultaneous breakdown of community, family and work, the heart and soul of civilized society.''

''We can't renew our country when children are having children and the fathers walk away as if the kids don't amount to anything.''

''I am telling you we have got to stop pointing our fingers at these kids who have no future and reach our hands out to them.''

Not that long ago, the language of values was spoken almost exclusively by conservatives. Not anymore. One of the striking things Mr. Clinton has done since he came on the national scene is to give progressives and moderates permission to use the most potent words in our moral vocabulary.

Despite ''bimbo eruptions,'' despite appointments that blew up in his face like trick cigars, despite a Houdini ability to get himself in and out of traps, time and again he has drawn on the power in that voice.

What a change that is. Back in the 1980s, the right wing took over the word ''values'' the way it had taken over the word ''family.''

When Ronald Reagan spoke of welfare, he was talking of ''welfare cheats.'' Law and Order were code words for racism. And those who criticized sleaze wanted to ban Judy Blume books.

As late as 1992, Dan Quayle talked of single mothers only to pin a scarlet A on Murphy Brown. Marilyn Quayle divided women into Hillary Clinton-like liberals and those who ''do not wish to be liberated from their essential natures as women.''

For a long time, the very word values was suspect as a code used by the radical right. In the face of this, many others were tongue-tied.

Those who believed in a woman's right to choose found it hard to criticize any choice. Those who didn't believe in punishing teen-age mothers found it hard to decry young motherhood.

It was hard to worry out loud about children home alone without seeming to blame working mothers. Not even Tipper Gore could worry about sex or violence in music without being tagged as a censor.

Gradually we are now finding a way to the center. Not drifting right to some presumed political center. Reaching down to a psychological center. Finding a voice there.

This is the native tongue to the man from Arkansas. Values provide the link with which he connects health care, welfare reform, crime, jobs. These issues are girds to shore up an infrastructure rocked by the earthquakes of social change.

Language of course, isn't everything. There are questions about many of President Clinton's policies that chart change, and not just about health care.

Will welfare reform emancipate people from the system? Or merely de-institutionalize them, setting families adrift in a sea of unintended consequences?

Can any government ensure the ethic of work? Or will that ethic be downsized in a ruthless world economy no matter what?

Are communities the Humpty Dumpty of America? Or can they be put back together?

When Mr. Clinton talked about such values, some regarded it as treacly rhetoric, the spun sugar of politics.

But this is clearly a man who sees values as glue. It holds him to the public and to policy.

In just over a year, this sometimes rocky administration has staked out the common ground of change. It can be an unsettled turf. But it's a lot easier to build on, when you speak a common language.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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