For '96, It Will Be the Society, Stupid

March 29, 1995|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today? Here are your choices: 1) economic issues, 2) social issues, 3) foreign affairs.

That is the question and those are the choices offered by the Washington Post/ABC News Poll on 36 separate occasions since 1981. The historical series, just published, paints a picture of recent American political and social history -- and potential trouble for President Clinton.

In the first part of the '80s (1981-1986), the economic issues were way ahead: An average of 56 percent of the public said that's what was troubling them most. After all, there had been a sharp recession in 1981 and it took several years to recoup and get back on an ascendant track. The Cold War was still going on and the issue of foreign affairs was in second place, with an average response of 16 percent. In dead last place, at 8 percent, were the ''social issues.'' In the early '80s, just before the crack epidemic hit, crime rates were going down somewhat.

Later (1986-1991) the economy improved, and consequently diminished as a ''problem,'' reported by only 23 percent of respondents. The Cold War had ended. Even with a ripple of concern about Kuwait in 1991, the average reading for foreign affairs had dropped to 14 percent. Crime started going up, and the social issues moved into first place, with 43 percent.

Consider next a fascinating moment, the run-up to the 1992 election that made Bill Clinton president. What turned out to be a rather modest recession was slowly beginning to head north. But that's not what was headlined. The neon pronouncements said that the three biggest issues were ''jobs, jobs, jobs,'' and that America's No. 1 problem was ''the economy, stupid.''

Well, maybe. And maybe not. There were four ''takings'' of the question from late 1991 to late 1992. Two of these showed economic issues in first place. Two of them showed social issues in first place. The average for economic was 40 percent. The average for social was 40 percent. Such results are often called a tie.

Alas, poor George Bush. He may well have believed that it was all about ''jobs, jobs, jobs.'' He barely raised the social issues in his election campaign. So frightened was he by the nasty way the media spun the conservative Houston Republican convention, he hardly mentioned crime, welfare or race preference, let alone gays in the military. Mr. Bush ran on ''trust.'' He said Bill Clinton was a ''bozo'' who waffled so much he ate at ''the waffle house.'' Mr. Bush lost.

Comes now. There have been six takings of the survey since November of 1993. The foreign-affairs issue has sunk without a trace -- an average score of only 3 percent. Sic transit gloria missiles.

The economy is doing rather well. This situation, depending on whom you're talking to, is referred to as either ''the Clinton Recovery,'' ''the Bush Recovery'' or ''what usually happens after a recession.'' And so the economy gets a mere 18 percent average.

The social issues are king of the hill, with a rating of 61 percent.

No wonder. What dominates the political dialogue these days? Welfare. Crime. Racial preference. These are social issues, fire-cracker issues, legitimate issues.

This is not happy news for President Clinton. Democrats always want to finesse the social issues and run on ''fat cats'' vs. the ''struggling middle class.'' Republicans have made a successful career of paying attention -- sometimes demagogically, often seriously -- to the perceived eroding social fabric.

Whoever gets the GOP nomination for 1996 will not ignore the social issues as Mr. Bush did. Quite to the contrary. It's on voters' minds and it's where President Clinton is weakest. His welfare plan, after much pumping up, was late and limp. His crime proposals were characterized (mostly unfairly) as pertaining to ''midnight basketball.'' A few weeks ago he said something mildly realistic about affirmative action (''We shouldn't be defending things we can't defend . . . ''), but new signals from the White House indicate one more folderoo to the liberals. Moreover, for many voters, Mr. Clinton has come to personify the permissiveness of 1960s social liberalism.

Is there a remedy for the president? Sure. Cause a recession, blame it on the Republican Congress, say the most important problem is ''the economy, stupid,'' and run on it.

Ben Wattenberg is a syndicated columnist and the host of the weekly public television program, ''Think Tank.''

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