WASHINGTON — Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin says Democrats are making a ``strategic mistake'' by criticizing the religious right at a time when Americans are deeply worried about a breakdown of morals.
Dr. Wirthlin, who was President Reagan's pollster, says that concern about moral issues has escalated sharply among Americans this year. Moral issues are paramount for many conservative Christian activists.
Rep. Vic Fazio (D) of California, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, lashed out at the Christian Coalition and other conservative ``radicals'' this week for what he charged were unfair political tactics.
At a Monitor breakfast meeting with reporters, Wirthlin said such attacks will only ``stimulate that [conservative] wing of the [Republican] party,'' and backfire on Democrats, including President Clinton.
Wirthlin says President Clinton's own legal problems with Whitewater and with accusations of sexual harrassment by an Arkansas woman, Paula Corbin Jones, add to public apprehension.
Moral concerns among voters are creating a political anomaly, Wirthlin says. At at time when the economy is growing handsomely, the president's approval rating has dropped from 58 percent on May 1 to only 47 percent on June 6, in Wirthlin's most recent nationwide poll. The sharpest decline - 15 percent - came in the South, where traditional values are given great import among the church-going, mostly-Protestant population.
To strengthen his hand with these voters, Mr. Clinton needs to demonstrate greater effectiveness and leadership by moving ahead on reform of welfare and health care, Wirthlin says.
The first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, originally was an asset in the health care effort, but her activist role no longer helps the president, Wirthlin says. The public sees Mrs. Clinton as more aggressive and effective than the president. Ironically, because of those qualities, voters blame her more than the president for getting the couple involved in Whitewater.
Wirthlin says Mrs. Clinton can still help the president by demonstrating that she cares for people less fortunate, while at the same time avoiding confrontations with the president's political foes.