'It's Values, Stupid,' Political Essayist Argues


By Ben J. Wattenberg

Free Press, 426 pp., $25

`IT'S the economy, stupid!''

The phrase scribbled on a wall in the 1992 Clinton-campaign's war room has become a standard, if inelegant, political aphorism. But Ben Wattenberg's latest book challenges that long-held assumption. While he allows that taxes, deficits, wages, and unemployment are not without relevance, the most important touchstones for today's voters, he says, are value-oriented issues.

Crime. Welfare. Education. Permissiveness. Discipline. Discrimination. Pornography. Family values. These are middle America's most critical hot buttons.

''Whichever political party, whichever political candidate ... is seen as best understanding and dealing with that values issue - will be honored. Honored at the polls,'' Wattenberg writes.

Coming from a Bible-toting member of the Christian Coalition, his views would not be so surprising. But Wattenberg is a lifelong Democrat who cut his political teeth as a speechwriter for Lyndon Johnson. Over the years, his views have shifted toward the center. He is a self-declared Reagan Democrat. Clinging to the hope that his party will moderate, Wattenberg has not followed the handful of Democratic politicians in the past two years who have either abandoned altogether the ship of public service or simply opted to turn a few degrees to starboard, put on a Republican cap, and ride the conservative Gulf Stream.

Still, his book is a scathing indictment of the liberal Democrats in Congress, President Clinton and and his administration, which have been the principal policy guides. Most conservatives would find little to quibble with in his arguments. While government is not the cause of social ills, Wattenberg argues, government policy can go a long way toward supporting or eroding public values and perceptions about promiscuity, racism, drug dependency, grade inflation, and other problems.

He says that welfare, for example, has evolved into a ''something-for-nothing'' program that undermines self worth, the work ethic, and ultimately the nation's economy. Values, he writes are ''the worthy social principles, goals, or standards held by an individual, class, society, etc.'' Most Americans see welfare today as running counter to their ''work equals reward'' value system.

The values thesis is not a new one for Wattenberg. In 1970, he and Richard Scammon coauthored a book called, ''The Real Majority.'' It made the New York Times bestseller list and was dubbed a ''Bible of both political parties.'' The tumult of the 1960s, they argued, had elevated social issues (civil rights, free-love, drugs) to the fore of American concerns. Social issues had become coequal with economic issues for voters.

A political generation later, Wattenberg has again written a handy guide for voters and politicians at all levels. In a breezy style, he further builds his case by reviewing Clinton's 1992 win, the 1994 Republican sweep in Congress, and the Clinton administration's performance to date, through the values lens.

While generally siding with today's conservatives on many issues, he describes Newt Gingrich's positions as unoriginal; ''in somewhat milder versions, Clinton campaigned on most of them in 1992,'' Wattenberg writes. Clinton campaigned as a ''New Democrat'' saying he wanted to ''end welfare as we know it,'' reduce the deficit, balance the budget, and promote free markets.

Wattenberg was impressed and for the first time ever, endorsed a Democratic candidate in his syndicated newspaper column in 1992. But he vows not to be fooled again. Clinton, he says, campaigned from the center and ruled from the left. He notes that as the 1996 race heats up, Clinton has already begun to shift to the strategic center, adding more moderate Democrats to his staff.

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