The quest for the 'family values' vote

July 24, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- First, there was Bill Clinton conceding last year that Dan Quayle was more right than wrong when he attacked Murphy Brown for having an out-of-wedlock child. Last week, liberal Health Secretary Donna E. Shalala said as much, chalking up another one for traditional family values.

Vice President Al Gore held a conference this month on fatherhood. And this week, the White House opens its doors for a conference on building the American character.

Whose values are these, anyway?

Recognizing the public's concern that society's moral fiber is fraying at every seam, Democrats have seized on the issues of family, values, responsibility and character -- potent political weapons once held exclusively in conservative Republican and religious-right arsenals -- and are trying to make them their own.

"We've been talking about issues of personal responsibility as part and parcel of virtually everything we've done," said William A. Galston, a White House domestic policy adviser and former University of Maryland professor who has been pushing Democrats in this values-conscious direction for about a decade.

Republicans reaped mixed results when they brought out their "family values" crusade in the last presidential election, partly because voters were fixated on their wallets. But polls show that, with an upturned economy, more Americans are focusing on mores and values -- especially as violence tears at the nation -- and believe society is mired in a sort of spiritual recession.

In a recent Newsweek poll, 76 percent of those surveyed said they believed the nation was in a "moral and spiritual decline."

"The Book of Virtues," by William J. Bennett, has been a best-seller for 30 weeks.

"It's not 'the economy, stupid.' It's the culture," said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, a research group focusing on families and society.

"Specifically, it's the decline of civic virtues, good behavior. Smart people in public life are recognizing this trend," Mr. Blankenhorn said.

Mr. Clinton, who has made a practice of shrewdly co-opting such traditionally Republican issues as crime and welfare, has gone into high schools, advising students not to have children -- or sex -- until they are grown up and married.

And, yes, he has acknowledged on national television that "there were a lot of very good things" in Mr. Quayle's "Murphy Brown" speech, for which the former vice president was mercilessly derided by the left.

'Communitarianism'

More and more Democratic politicians, mostly liberal intellectuals rethinking their positions on culture and values, are embracing a newfangled concept called "communitarianism." This movement, developed by Mr. Galston and Amitai Etzioni, a George Washington University sociology professor, stresses the need to balance individual rights with community responsibilities.

Mr. Blankenhorn says Democrats have been sounding cultural-values notes so often that they have neutralized these themes as divisive, political "wedge" issues. Democratic rhetoric, said, is becoming nearly indistinguishable from Republican or conservative rhetoric.

While Mr. Bennett, the former education secretary and drug policy director, talks about society's moral and spiritual decline as "a corruption of the heart," Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks of "a sleeping sickness of the soul."

Mr. Galston's 1991 book, "Liberal Purposes," examined many of the notions of virtues explored in Mr. Bennett's recent book.

"In different ways, we're talking about things that we share, if we're talking about personal responsibility, integrity, love of country, respect for the law," Mr. Galston said.

Differing solutions

But, in fact, beyond the rhetoric -- once the talk of virtuous behavior is translated into policy -- the two ideological sides advocate very different things.

For conservative Republicans, "family values" are generally equated with a rejection of gay rights and abortion rights. Believing that sex education, with its references to contraception, sanctions teen-age sexual activity, they support programs that teach abstinence only.

While many Democrats have begun stressing sexual abstinence before marriage, the importance of stable marriages and traditional two-parent homes, they generally support gay rights as a matter of basic fairness and believe abortion is a constitutional right. On issues like sex education, they often believe that information about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS cuts down on both the diseases and out-of-wedlock births.

Like most conservatives, Robert Knight, director of cultural studies for the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank, said that he believes the Democrats' support of gay rights, for instance, is incompatible with family values.

"The Clinton White House has sold its soul to the gay-rights movement," Mr. Knight said. "Once you do that, it's hard to be pro-family. You can't have it both ways."

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