It's values, stupid, and Clinton's a convert

November 02, 1995|By Ben Wattenberg

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton phoned me the other day to chat -- for almost an hour -- about my new book, ''Values Matter Most,'' which he has been reading and skimming. He praised it and its theme. I was thrilled, but somewhat surprised because the book is sometimes quite critical of him.

Roughly, this is the theme of the book: Economics is no longer the No. 1 political issue. Values are; social issues are. Democratic liberalism linked the national party to softness on these non-economic issues, leading to defeats. A political ''Z'' pattern then unfolded. In 1992, Mr. Clinton valiantly pulled the party of the left toward the center, stressing social issues, calling for ''personal responsibility'' and ''no more something for nothing.''

But once elected, he and a liberal Democratic Congress reverted toward the liberal left. The Republicans exploited this turn in 1994 and are now legislating toward the center-right. President Clinton is re-reverting -- trying to re-capture the New Democrat flag. Left, right, left, right -- the zigzag politics of Zorro.

The president's s 1993-94 zig to the left, I explain in the book, deeply disillusioned me and Democrats of my stripe. Mr. Clinton understands. He told me it was the ''most honest criticism of the administration.''

Mr. Clinton said he had recently been thinking through the current political situation and had come up with a phrase to describe it: ''Values matter most.'' Accordingly, he had been somewhat astonished when he received a set of page proofs of a book with that very title.

He says that in 1993 and 1994 he was too interested in the ''legislative scorecard rather than in philosophy.'' He was ''so anxious to fix the economy'' that he ''changed philosophically and missed the boat.'' He ''lost the language'' that had shaped him as a New Democrat. He behaved ''like a prime minister, not a president.''

'A cardboard cut-out'

After the 1994 election, he realized he had created ''a cardboard cut-out of himself.'' He said he had ''let Democrats down'' by not drumming home his message about values.

Mr. Clinton has said before that he had been portrayed unfavorably. Now he is apparently saying that much of that portrayal was accurate and was his own fault. Moving on, he intends to recapture that New Democrat ideology.

How? He said he thought that Democrats in Congress had done more moving to the center in 1993-94 than is generally acknowledged, citing, for example, the fact that the Congressional Black Caucus supported the crime bill. He noted that the percentage of federal employees in the work force today is the lowest since 1933.

He thinks the recent Senate vote on welfare, with three-quarters of the Democrats voting in favor of a very tough bill, demonstrates that the Democratic move to the center is intensifying now. He is hopeful that the House-Senate conference will present him with a welfare bill that is tough, but not harsh, and that he can sign it. He hopes he and the Democrats will be able to compromise with the Republicans on an ''honorable budget.''

That, and more, he believes will show his true colors and show that he, and the Democrats are now, really, New Democrats.

The ''Z'' is stunning politics. It will surely alienate the Democratic left. It will likely raise fresh credibility problems about the president. It's the right path for the country. And while it will be difficult in any event, it's the only way President Clinton can win.

Ben Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of a new book, ''Values Matter Most,'' which will be a one-hour PBS television special on November 13.

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