Social Values: A Nixonian Diversion
Jude Wanniski
May 22, 1992


Vice President Quayle's "Murphy Brown" speech about the "poverty of values" represents a marked decision by the Bush re-election campaign to adopt the Nixonian political formula, which appeals to the bedrock America of "the silent majority." By my lights, this is another nail in his campaign coffin, as it pulls him further away from any chance that he will focus on creative economic ideas -- the real concerns of the electorate. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with Quayle's message, but it doesn't go anywhere. It's been 20 years since Richard Nixon used it to win re-election after he had botched up the economy. But Nixon had the war in Vietnam from which to extract the nation, and an inept opponent, George McGovern, who marched over the "values" cliff by embracing the flower children and their "Make Love, Not War" slogan. George Bush has no such luck. Ross Perot, who looks increasingly like the next President, already owns the most active part of the silent majority. He's winning the hearts of grass roots America in a way Nixon never could. He's offered himself to them as a willing blunt instrument, which they can use to bludgeon both political parties as they vent their frustration and rage at the Ruling Class. The Democratic nominee, Bill Clinton, is no McGovern either. The idea of pitching a campaign on conservative social engineering appeals to many of the intellectuals in the GOP, but it's a sure loser in 1992. 

It's easy to understand why the campaign is going in this direction, though. Just as Nixon botched the economy in his first term, closing down the expansion that began with the Kennedy tax cuts of 1964, the Bush economic team has shut down the Reagan boom, by fixating on tax increases and spending cuts instead of economic growth. If you can't persuade the electorate you know how to fix the economy, you must run on cultural issues, which will inevitably border on appeals with racist undertones, a la Willie Horton. The litany is familiar, dealing with symptoms, not causes: A constitutional amendment to balance the budget, one to ban abortions, one to put prayer back in the schools, a voucher system for education, and, of course, capital punishment and law-and-order.

Friends in the Bush Administration continue to call me asking my political advice on how to pull out of the tailspin, and my answer is always the same: Replace Nick Brady with a Treasury Secretary who understands entrepreneurial capitalism. Their response is always the same: The President will never do this. As long as Brady is at Treasury, the Budget Agreement takes precedence over any serious growth strategy. HUD Secretary Jack Kemp has the right message, which the President obviously agrees with whenever Kemp is around. But when out of sight, Kemp is out of mind, and Nick Brady and Dick Darman are back in control.

Kemp is among the few Republicans in Washington who have resisted the "poverty of values" themes, and he is almost certainly going to be criticized by conservative cadres in the GOP for refusing to get behind Quayle's "Murphy Brown" approach, insofar as it distracts from his persistent message of economic growth.

The chief influence here in pressing the "values" theme is my old mentor, Irving Kristol, who had for many years been Professor of Urban Values at NYU. Irving is the intellectual godfather of the neoconservative movement in American politics. All supply-siders look up to him because he championed our cause when it was in the cradle and had few champions of any kind. Irving's son Bill is Quayle's chief of staff and of course the inspiration of the Vice President's speech. Bill Kristol had been chief of staff to Reagan's Education Secretary, William Bennett, who is also on the front line now in arguing the "poverty of values." House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich is yet another powerful force in the party who has always put social values on at least a slightly higher plain than economic growth. It was Gingrich as much as Lee Atwater in 1988 who pushed the Bush campaign into its Willie Horton and American Flag themes.

I've argued with Irving Kristol for 15 years that he is talking symptoms, not causes, when he pursues his urban values agenda. Most recently we differed at our client conference in Boca Raton, at which Irving spoke. His theme precisely recommended that President Bush develop themes of social values for his re-election campaign. I pointed out then, as always, that changing a culture takes a very long time, but changing an economy can be done quickly, with beneficial long-term effects on culture. When people are persistently denied property (access to capital) -- or have their only property (cash savings) stolen from them via a government inspired inflation -- why is it they have little regard for the property rights of those in control? I make the same argument in Moscow, arguing that it makes no sense for foreign investors to run around insisting that the government pass laws protecting property rights, when only foreigners own any property. The only property the people have are their ruble savings, and all the Western institutions and academics insist the government cheat them out of these.

Kemp has been all over the place since the L.A. riots arguing this very point, that when people have access to capital and property they will automatically become defenders of property rights. None of the privatized public housing units burned. Kemp is of course as much an admirer of Irving Kristol as I. He is pro-life, in favor of school prayer, capital punishment, law and order, etc., etc. But always, economic growth is put at a higher plain, because something can be done about it now. There is no way you can ever pass laws fast enough to require people to behave, or believe in God, if they correctly see the Establishment as evil, blocking their path to fulfillment of their God-given potential.

I've talked to Kemp dozens of times in recent weeks. His boundless optimism is always at the center of discussion, including his optimism about the future of the Bush Administration, the President's re-election chances, and the eventual triumph of his own growth agenda. I have to agree that the President has at least spent countless hours in this period fully focused on the issues, that he actually seems to connect now and then, and that many of the Perot supporters I run into every day could probably be won back by the President. But he's trapped by an economic team that is incapable of the necessary adjustments. The voters know it, which is why the President's negatives continue to climb. He just doesn't get it.

Perot, I think, does. I think. The Washington/New York crowd is trying to press him into a string of decisions which he wisely is avoiding. A good leader never makes a decision until he has to, though, for every extra minute may bring fresh information that bears on the decision. Perot does not have to present a specific agenda or name his running mate or do anything else in detail until the two major political parties have completed their conventions this summer. I know a little bit more about Perot than I can say, but that little bit makes me feel better about him, not worse. If President Bush remains on a Nixonian track, I would not be surprised to see Perot inviting Kemp onto his team, and Jack accepting. Even boundless optimism at some point must give way to reality. Such a ticket would be hard to beat.