ONE of those blue-collar battlegrounds in the mid-South where President George Bush's strategists plan to use "family values" to polarize voters is Burlington, N.C., a town on Interstate 95 where folks freely mix religious beliefs with political convictions. This year Mr. Bush's strategists think his fate will be decided in working-class cities like Burlington across the South, in the West, and around the Great Lakes.
Two years ago I visited Burlington to catch a speech by North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, a Republican champion of family values whose strategy is to polarize voters over controversial social issues.
Mingling in the Helms crowd before the speech, I asked his supporters why they were Republicans. "Because I'm for family values," came the almost rote reply from one after another. When I asked for a further explanation of what was meant by "family values" the reply was generally brief, brisk, defensive, and uniform: "You know, family values."
No, I didn't know what they meant by family values. But I'd like to. Couldn't they be more specific? They couldn't.
But Senator Helms himself did fill in the blanks. His talk was a preview of the 1992 GOP platform that has been strongly influenced by the religious right. Helms is a master at weaving his themes. He tied his attack on homosexuals to funding policies of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The talk might have been a warm-up for the current GOP platform plank that says no public funds should go to "subsidize obscenity and blasphemy masquerading as art" and that no civil rights protections should be extended to homosexuals.
Helms next hit on radical feminists for undermining family values by pushing for abortion on demand. The 1992 GOP platform calls for a total ban on abortion. Bush says he doesn't embrace every line in that platform, but he also seems ready to polarize the nation using this narrow set of issues - confirming his earlier statement that he will do whatever is necessary to get reelected.
As for Helms, he is, as a local observer said, "good at pushing the hate buttons." That night Helms had a new wrinkle. He brought four files of photos he said backed up his charge against the NEA, including five taken by the late Robert Mapplethorpe, a homosexual whose work was exhibited with a partial grant from the NEA and which is (by most standards) considered sexually explicit. Helms invited "the men" in the crowd to step up after the speech, take a peek at the photos, and judge for themselves on ho w filthy they were.
Helms's approach to the campaign - an approach Bush is taking via family values - was totally negative. The strategy is not about family values at all, but is an appeal to loaded issues, controversy, and prejudice, which, unless activated by a Helms or a Bush, play little or no role in the political process. It is a pushing of hate buttons. It also explains why, in a political setting, party activists can't explain what family values mean to them.
What the strategy is, however, is politically effective. As a local county official said, Helms's attack on "filthy art is a big hit in this part of the country."
Why did Bush, a moderate Yankee brought up to have toleration for differing values, become the chosen vehicle of the religious right? It's clear that Bush has been trying to placate the GOP's conservative wing ever since Ronald Reagan picked him as his running mate. His loyalty to Mr. Reagan was enough to get him nominated in 1988, but now, with a stagnant economy pushing his poll numbers down, Bush needs a way to pump-up the GOP loyalists. Enter family values. It's the set of issues expected to energize
a veritable army of right-wing loyalists.
IT may be late in the game for an incumbent president to nail down his base. But it's not too late to turn on an army of activists needed to register and get out the voters. That's part of the role of the hate buttons during the current election season.
Pat Robertson, the TV evangelist turned political strategist and presidential candidate, proved that a strong voting group on the cultural right is out there. His followers surprised party regulars in the 1988 caucuses, elected many delegates, and put a disproportionately large number of them on the GOP's platform committee where they wrote the planks that make up the 1992 GOP family-values approach.
Four years ago Mr. Robertson, trying to gain credibility, explained to reporters that it takes only a few dedicated people per precinct to seize control of the Republican Party at a local level. Then one uses a similar strategy at the state, and then national level. That was the Robertson game plan.
That delegates loyal to Robertson came from states like Washington and Iowa, both strongholds of moderate Republicans, is a measure of the success of his strategy.
But it leaves an unanswered question: Will mainstream Republicans swallow hard and stick with Bush under these circumstances? It's an individual call and one a good many party members are wrestling with.
Polls taken in 1990 by Mason Dixon tell us that Helms's tactics were rejected that year by many North Carolina Republicans in the state's urban centers. These were mainly upper middle-class voters who patronize the arts, prefer a pro-choice position on abortion, and don't want to single out any group (homosexuals included) for condemnation.
Those working the floor during the GOP convention in Houston report that many state delegations were dismayed over the sharp swing to the right - both in the rhetoric they heard and in the family-values part of the platform. But as good Republicans, they didn't pull together to challenge that platform, even on the abortion issue.
Despite their success in local precincts, the religious right doesn't have the numbers to elect a president on its own. The right wins caucuses but not primaries - as shown by the returns from Super Tuesday primaries across the South in both 1988 and 1992.
It was Bush, running as a mainstream conservative, not Robertson, who swept the South in 1988. Four years later it was Bush, not Pat Buchanan, who won every primary in "family values" country, and he did it without pushing the hate buttons. Now it's the fall, Bush is in trouble, and he just may push more of those buttons.
To get reelected in the tight 1990 Senate race, Helms had to go one step further with the hate buttons. He played the race card. In a sadly effective TV ad, an employment-rejection letter is crumpled up in a white hand as a voice says this person didn't "get the job" because it had to go to a minority applicant.
In a tight race in 1992, will Bush be faced with the same option? If so, what will he do in late October?