Quayle Attempts to Win Hearts of Conservatives
The vice president's `Murphy Brown' attack brought him much attention, but has done little to raise his 20-percent poll rating
WASHINGTON — VICE President Dan Quayle's steady attack on the morals of elites in the "newsrooms, sitcom studios, and faculty lounges" has brought him plenty of the attention he once could attract only by gaffe or garble.
In fact, he and his staff have eclipsed, for the moment, President Bush and his team in setting the campaign agenda.
The immediate political goal is clear. Mr. Quayle's views are well-crafted to spark the enthusiasm of socially conservative voters, fortifying their loyalty against incursions by Ross Perot.
But whether his attack on the values of the cultural elite is playing well with the larger American public is not at all apparent.
The early signs are not favorable for him.
Since the vice president's highly publicized criticism of the "Murphy Brown" television comedy for denigrating the importance of fathers, polls have shown that the public's view of him remains highly negative.
"With the larger electorate, it flopped," says William Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute. "Most people think it's kind of foolish to carry on this argument, that it's a distraction from more important issues." Voters' minds elsewhere
Although the cultural questions Quayle is raising can be potent ones in many campaigns, the public is unusually absorbed in economic concerns and its distaste for politicians this year.
"Most people consider these [cultural] issues irrelevant now," says Donald Kellerman, director of Times-Mirror opinion research.
One reason cultural and family values are probably not going to offer major leverage to the Bush-Quayle team in this election, says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, is because the other candidates will not leave themselves vulnerable on that front.
Bill Clinton made his own strategic splash on Saturday. At a meeting of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, he criticized black rap artist Sister Souljah for promoting racial discord.
His host, Mr. Jackson, was jarred. But Mr. Clinton, like Quayle, found that tackling popular culture breaks through the campaign monotony and gets press.
Clinton was demonstrating that he will not be pigeonholed on the Democratic left and will not excuse irresponsible behavior, according to Dr. Mann.
If Clinton's gambit was "an interesting rejoinder to Quayle," says Mann, Quayle deserves some credit as well.
"In an administration without conviction or agenda, he's offering up the only substance," he says. "It's one of the few signs of vitality in the campaign."
The Quayle strategy does not appear to be part of an overarching campaign plan either at Bush-Quayle headquarters or the White House.
The initiative begins in the vice president's offices next door in the Old Executive Office Building. The Quayle staff sends the vice president's schedules and speech texts to the White House for approval, but very little consultation is reported.
Congressman Vin Weber (R) of Minnesota, a conservative leader on Capitol Hill, says the vision behind Quayle's line of attack comes from the vice president's chief of staff, William Kristol.
"No one else in the Bush campaign has a similarly coherent vision of the world" and the campaign, he said a recent Monitor breakfast.
The vision is one calculated to divide. Quayle himself has called it an "us versus them" strategy. His bet is that there are more of "us" than "them."
Most people may agree with most of Quayle's points, such as that two parents of opposite sexes are preferable to most other family arrangements. But most people are unlikely to be casting their vote on such matters this year. "You don't build majorities with us versus them strategies," says Mr. Schneider. Dividing voters good move
But then if you want to mobilize a corps of activist voters, he adds, "the only way is to divide."
Quayle drew a mid-speech standing ovation last week before the Southern Baptist Convention when he said this about the media elite: "I wear their scorn as a badge of honor."
Times Mirror has grouped voters into nine categories according to their values.
One socially conservative group, about 12 percent of the electorate, it calls the moralists. These people are among the most loyal Republican voters at the presidential level, and they are most likely to respond well to Quayle's appeal, says Kellerman.
It will likely hold less appeal to the other groups, even those who essentially agree with it, he says.
"This kind of stuff doesn't play well in the suburbs," Schneider says. `Murphy' recognized
But it certainly rivets attention. In a Times-Mirror poll released Monday, taken after the "Murphy Brown" debate, only 1 in 4 could name Yugoslavia as the former Eastern European country now torn by civil war. Yet 2 in 3 people could name "Murphy Brown" as the situation comedy Quayle had singled out for criticism.
Quayle's favorability rating in the poll runs in the low 20-percent range, says Kellerman, half that of either Clinton or Bush. Any gains he has made from his high profile in recent weeks is not yet apparent in the numbers.