IT has been many an election since so-called social issues have loomed quite as large as they do this year. The outrage of the 1960s, most simply expressed in the conviction that no American child should go to bed hungry, has been reborn in the 1990s, though in a paler form.
In 1992, social issues not only live in the giant shadow of the deficit but face a prevailing skepticism that social problems can be solved by throwing money at them, even if the money were available. This lends a caution to the way social issues are being discussed in the campaign, often in the form of tentative questions rather than ringing answers.
It is one thing, for instance, for both parties to indignantly ask: Can the American dream still be said to exist if 20 percent of American children live below the poverty line? But welfare reform is a prickly subject. Anxious to avoid the charge of being just another tax-and-spend Democrat, Bill Clinton is proposing a variation of the workfare concept - programs designed to move recipients off welfare and into jobs. The Republicans may be sticking with their familiar assumption that the welfare system i s a prime example of government gone awry. But nobody is making cracks this time about welfare queens in Cadillacs - not with the ranks of the jobless swelling and the number of homeless people in New York doubled since the summer of 1991.
Both candidates present themselves as agents of change, but on the even more sensitive subject of entitlements, who dares propose fiddling with Medicare?
The closest either the Republicans or the Democrats want to get is to talk vaguely about a "cap." But even this proposal cannot be considered unless health-care costs are also capped, further complicating the issue.
On the issue of family leave, Democrats ask: Does the United States want to be the only industrial nation without a government policy on family leave? Governor Clinton supports a bill recently passed by Congress that would provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave after a birth in the family or during a medical emergency. The Republicans are still inclined to feel this should be left to the private sector. President Bush, who vetoed the bill Tuesday, has proposed a tax credit for small and medium-sized businesses
that voluntarily offer family leave to employees.
Of all the social issues, abortion may be the most emotional. As voters, particularly women, pull the lever, will the words "Roe v. Wade" run through their minds as they choose the man who will appoint future Supreme Court justices? Here, at least, the choice between candidates is clear-cut. Although the president and vice president continue to back away from their original absolute opposition to abortion, the Republican platform seeks to ban all abortions.
As the campaign goes on, Republicans are trying so hard to prove they too are compassionate, and Democrats are struggling so diligently to show they too are fiscally responsible, that undecided voters may have trouble telling them apart.
The posture in social issues for both candidates as they come down the stretch is one hand on the pocketbook and one hand on the heart. Clinton presents himself as an ally of Silicon Valley corporate executives and the man who knows how to balance a budget, while President Bush pointedly identifies himself as the father of a divorced single parent who understands where Murphy Brown is coming from.
Perhaps the least ambivalent leadership on social issues this fall doesn't come from the presidential candidates at all. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado has claimed that women are putting "soul" back into the Democratic Party and by extension into politics. If this is to be the Year of the Woman, it will be not only because of the presence of women candidates, but because of the agenda - an inclination to use power in behalf of compassionate causes and for the redressing of inequities.
"Putting people first," the slogan for social issues, is to a degree electioneering rhetoric. But it may serve a special purpose this year.
After the '80s measurement of standing tall in economic prosperity and military might, the humbled '90s are at least paying lip service to a venerable ideal - that citizens should care about the happiness of one another as an inseparable part of pursuing happiness for themselves.