The Wattenberg cure

November 15, 1995|By Jeane Kirkpatrick

WASHINGTON -- It is easy to understand why Bill Clinton telephoned Ben J. Wattenberg to talk about his new book, ''Values Matter Most.'' The book bristles with information, insight and penetrating analysis into the problems that cost the Democrats control of the Congress in 1994, gave Republicans unprecedented victories in states that had not elected Republicans since Reconstruction and threaten Mr. Clinton's re-election in 1996. The president, a man who does not like to lose, sees in the book ideas that could conceivably help him avoid this fate.

Since the Republicans' congressional landslide in 1994 took place when the economy was strong, President Clinton has already understood that it's not just ''the economy, stupid'' that stands between him and re-election. It never was. The Democratic Party's problems -- as Mr. Wattenberg illustrates again and again -- are with the social and the cultural issues: crime, welfare, education, quotas. These are the issues on which Republican victories were based -- in 1968 and 1972, in 1980 and 1984, in 1988 and 1994. They are responsible for the continuing exodus of Democratic officeholders from their party.

Southern accents

It is no accident that the only two Democrats to win a presidential election since 1968 -- Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton -- have Southern accents and Baptist affiliations. These identify them with the conservative side of the great cultural divide that cuts across New Deal party alignments and has already transformed both parties.

Ben Wattenberg has been observing the impact of social-cultural issues on American political parties for 25 years. In 1970, he and Richard Scammon, both Democrats, wrote ''The Real Majority,'' warning that the Democratic Party was headed for big trouble.

Mr. Wattenberg has lived this trouble. ''My Democratic Party was tough on crime,'' he writes. ''Support for public schools was inviolate. . . . They were temples of tough discipline and good behavior. . . . The Democratic Party was a workingman's party that stood for vigorous economic growth. . . .''

That Democratic Party is no more. By 1970, American cities had changed. Mr. Wattenberg's mother was robbed on the street, his father was mugged in the lobby of his apartment building; a decade later his sister-in-law was murdered in Philadelphia. In the same period, rising crime rates, declining test scores, growing welfare rolls and spreading disorder displaced bread-and-butter issues as the chief concern of American voters -- including Mr. Wattenberg.

The revolutionaries

The Democratic Party has had a lot of difficulty adapting to new problems and concerns. Often it has seemed more interested in conducting a social-cultural revolution than in preserving American society. Most of the ''reforms'' voters dislike have been adopted under Democratic administrations. Policies that produced busing, quotas, permissive parole systems and burgeoning welfare rolls have been tolerated and preserved by Democratic ''liberals'' who do not understand that these reforms dissolve the connections between crime and punishment, between work and economic reward, between merit and success.

But voters understand. These liberal ''reforms'' undermine the work ethic and violate the basic requirements of an achievement-based society, as liberal multiculturalism violates the basic requirements for forging unity in a diverse society.

Voters understand that American society and the American economy are based on the very connections that liberal reforms are dissolving. Decouple work from reward, merit from success, crime from punishment, and the system breaks down. When ''race norming'' supersedes merit as the basis for hiring, the quality of the American product suffers. When it is more profitable to collect welfare checks than to work, the whole economy suffers.

The majority walks

The Democratic Party, Mr. Wattenberg explains again, has lost votes and supporters because its leaders seemed neither to understand nor to respect these core values on which American society and American success have been based. It is no longer the majority party because too many of its leaders no longer share the values of the majority of Americans.

As recently as 1992 Mr. Wattenberg voted for Bill Clinton because he thought he had broken with the Democratic Party's dominant permissive liberalism. He no longer thinks so. He doubts that the president knows what his Southern contemporary, Newt Gingrich, knows: that America is a unique civilization -- ''great, different and in trouble'' -- and deserving support.

Mr. Wattenberg's views on American political parties have a great deal in common with those of many other Americans -- as reported in a Washington Post poll last week. That poll tells us that 55 percent of Americans see the Republican Party as best representing their views on national issues as compared to only 25 percent who see the Democratic Party as closer to their views.

Conversion factor

It is not clear that either Mr. Wattenberg or the poll can help Bill Clinton win re-election. It is very hard for a public figure to change sides on the ''values issue'' and retain credibility.

Mr. Wattenberg's book accurately diagnoses the president's problem, and there is no known treatment that will get the victim into shape to win by next November. Still, it would be interesting to see Bill Clinton make the effort. I hope he does.

The United States needs two viable political parties. Until the Democrats take the Wattenberg cure, we will have only one.

Jeane Kirkpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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