This election was about values

As I edge toward the December anniversary of when I began this column 30 years ago, I'm reminded that my early columns, like those today, dealt with injury being suffered by our national government.

Back in the early 1970s it was Richard Nixon and Watergate. Nixon's maneuvering and obstructions greatly diminished public confidence in the presidency. Today's protracted fight for the presidency, with the adversaries battling tooth and nail, is no Watergate. But as the struggle escalates, it raises concerns about our succession process and leaves us with a winner who, because of the acrimony that has been stirred up, will face an opponent party that won't allow him to get much done.

Indeed, the winner will probably feel like he's just been through a kind of political bankruptcy - gaining the title of president with little ability to truly govern.

With Watergate it was easy, in the end, to pinpoint the guilty party. The problem revolved around Nixon and his coverup. But unraveling what's behind this dog fight for the presidency is a different story.

What are the roots of this struggle, where the voters are so sharply divided? I'd say this division became apparent during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and, particularly, during the impeachment process. In essence, it was a heated difference over what Americans believed to be right and wrong in the personal conduct of a president - or anyone.

On one side were millions who believed that a president who committed adultery and perjury had done wrong and should be punished by impeachment. On the other side were the millions who believed such presidential misbehavior was something private, not to be faced with such punishment.

Our citizens were clearly divided on this social issue. And they remain so. People on both sides feel passionately about their view on the subject.

But why did we hear so little about this issue during the presidential campaign? It was never hit head-on by either candidate. Bush alluded to it indirectly by saying that he would change the tone in Washington. But I think he steered away from it because of the fear that he could antagonize more people than he would attract by attacking President Clinton. Anyway, he stayed clear of being that specific.

But was the issue really there in the campaign? Absolutely. I think the main motivation that drew voters to the polls in support of Bush was not so much that they were for him as it was their desire to bring about a fresh look in the presidency. They saw Vice President Al Gore as part of the Clinton presidency, no matter how much he tried to indicate he was his own man.

Certainly, there were lots of other issues involved: the economy, abortion rights, the environment, and more - also the likability of the candidates. But I'd say that the dominant issue - beneath the surface but always there - was the social, moral issue. On one side were the traditionalists. On the other side were the social liberals.

Yes, that is oversimplification. But I think it gets to the heart of the matter.

So where are we today? I think that our voters are locked in this social-issue battle and the sides are equally divided. That's what we saw in the election and are seeing now in the bitter fight that has followed.

Again, the dominant issue driving the election focused on values. And it's still there, shaping the passionate position of both sides, as the struggle goes on and on.

And in the end? Whoever emerges from this damaging endgame as the victor will - if he is to be an effective president - somehow have to find a healing approach to a populace that is so deeply divided.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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