Clinton's Lesson On Values Comes Too Late

IT'S values, stupid!

That appears to be one of the lessons President Clinton learned from the recent campaign, when he went around the country buttonholing voters like the Ancient Mariner to tell them about the rosy economy, only to see them flee to the Republicans.

When the earth stopped quaking from the election and the president asked his polling mavens what happened, the answer came from exit surveys. Three-quarters of Republican voters had listed family values and morality as the issue that mattered most to them, ahead of crime, ahead of jobs, ahead of health.

In Jakarta Mr. Clinton gave the first clear indication that where he can't lick 'em he'll try to join 'em. Acknowledging that ``this whole values debate will go forward and will intensify,'' he opened the door to consideration of a constitutional amendment providing for voluntary prayer in the schools.

He said, ``I have always supported voluntary prayer in the schools.'' That statement is not supported by the record. In Little Rock in July 1992, candidate Clinton told a campaign rally, ``Remember what the law is. You can't have prayer in the schools if it's official. Any kind of prayer activity has to not coerce other people into doing it.''

The law of the land is the 1962 Supreme Court decision that so-called voluntary prayer is coercive because it exerts pressure on students to conform.

The president may have believed a constitutional amendment would take too long to consider and enact to be any early problem for him, but he will find that the values debate does not end with school prayer. The debate over welfare reform is in part a debate about values. The proposal in the GOP ``Contract With America'' for a Personal Responsibility Act, which would cut teenage mothers off welfare permanently, is a reflection of conservative family and religious values about illegitimate childbearing.

Clinton said that values should unite rather than divide Americans and should not be part of a partisan debate. Nice try, but too late! Going back to Vice President Quayle and Murphy Brown, if not before, values are something on which the Republicans claim a patent that they're unlikely to share.

Clinton, by setting one tentative foot down that bitter and confused road of values, may have unleashed more trouble for himself than he could spare himself.

Within days the White House was backpedaling from the president's statement in Jakarta. Officials tried to suggest that what Clinton really had in mind was a moment of silence for contemplation. White House aides, trying to burrow their way out of the hole the president had dug for himself, said they were praying that he would observe a moment of silence for a change. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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