THE VALUE-FREE GOP
11:00 PM, Nov 17, 1996 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
In 1996, Republican party candidates took little or no credit for their legislative accomplishments, feared the label "extremism," began describing themselves as full of "common sense," and finally maintained their control of the House and Senate by going on the attack against their Democratic rivals in any way they could in the final two weeks of the campaign. Newt Gingrich trashed his millionaire opponent for paying hourly teenage employees the minimum wage -- an election-year conversion for a man who fancies himself a conviction politician and surely still believes the minimum wage is a foolish and destructive economic policy, particularly for teenagers.
But Gingrich was just following the dominant trend in this year's Republican campaigns: He sought to de-ideologize himself and his election. Those were Bob Dole's instincts too. Dole chafed against his own pro-life stance and refused to make a major issue out of partial-birth abortion, or school choice, or gay marriage. He finally saw the light on the California Civil Rights Initiative in the last two weeks, but then, terminal patients are willing to try any wild idea in search of a miracle cure.
Dole did, however, go for a tax cut, while Gingrich toted around an ice bucket to symbolize the kinds of congressional reforms he had supervised in the previous two years. These are important policy matters, to be sure. But they are insufficient. The two most important figures in the Republican party this year did nothing -- nothing -- to connect these issues to what really matters, especially in presidential elections. Tax cuts and ice buckets are all well and good (tax cuts particularly), but they speak to worldly concerns -- like economic growth, a slightly higher living standard, the efficiencies and petty corruptions of public service. They say little about higher and more fundamental concerns. They do not answer questions about the spiritual health of the nation. They do not address the ominous sense we all have that Americans are, with every intake of breath, unconsciously inhaling a philosophy that stresses individual pleasure over individual responsibility; that our capacity to be our best selves is weakening; and that if we have grown weak, what in God's name will today's children be like when they assume the burdens of adulthood?
Bill Clinton built his reelection campaign on these questions. And as Republicans watched in baffled amazement, the man reviled as a draft-dodging philanderer and inveterate dissembler got to the right of the GOP on questions of morality. He transmuted worries about children's physical health -- tobacco, unsafe drinking water -- into a display of concern about their spiritual well-being. He talked about the literacy of eight-year-olds. He knit together ideas about responsibility and community. He sought passage of a measure to make it easier for parents to keep their kids from watching TV shows they think inappropriate. To express both his disgust at their flight from responsibility and his dislike of weaponry, the president announced that he would prevent deadbeat dads from owning guns.
It's all blather, of course. Smoking is a medical problem, not a problem of the soul. There is no tapwater crisis. Children are already supposed to be fully literate by the age of eight, but aren't because the union-controlled schools Clinton treats as sacrosanct are a scandal. The V- chip won't work. The "deadbeat dads and guns" business is a cynical synthesis of focus-group research. But in a moral landscape so parched, Clinton's values pitch was the only one made in 1996. Some say this was a peace-and- prosperity election, and it may have been, but peace and prosperity weren't the only things -- or even the main things -- Clinton talked about. He talked about values.
I was taught to dislike the word "values" by my teacher Allan Bloom, who explained it was a subversive way of reducing absolute truths to mere cultural biases. The fact that it has become the substitute word for "virtues" or "morality" suggests the spiritual poverty of this cultural moment. Be that as it may, the Republican party was supposed to be the party of values- not just family values, but values more broadly defined.