WASHINGTON -- All through the Reagan-Bush era, the political strategists who have guided the fortunes of the two men have operated on one basic premise: if they could make "values," as opposed to hard realities, the issue, they would keep on winning at the polls.
They have effectively appropriated many of the symbols of the wholesome American life as if they were party labels. In the 1988 campaign, they wrapped themselves in the flag with Bush visits to flag factories while implying lack of patriotism by opponent Michael Dukakis because he declined, following legal advice, to force public-school students to repeat the pledge of allegiance.
This reliance on "values" as a Republican campaign mainstay has been particularly applicable to the domestic front, where for the past nearly 12 years talk about what makes America great has blurred an official abdication of responsibility for the poor and otherwise disadvantaged of the society. Social programs have been slashed and their recipients denigrated. Speeches about "values" have been a substitute for policy, and politically it has worked.
This year, with the recession causing President Bush's early popularity to drop like a rock, and with his administration in a fiscal straitjacket precluding any kind of productive agenda, his campaign strategists have been strapped for a theme. Resurrecting a no-new-taxes pledge previously broken has not been enough. Ronald Reagan's successful question about Jimmy Carter in 1980 -- "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" -- has come back to haunt the Republicans.
The Los Angeles riots, however, have stirred the political pot. The ensuing pressures for a federal response have forced the Bush administration to support some immediate, substantive relief as opposed to mere preaching about values, to the dismay of many House Republicans from suburban and rural districts who see such assistance as blackmail paid to the perpetrators of looting and arson, rather than as humanitarian aid to the victims.
President Bush, while finally embracing some modest ideas for improving life in the inner cities from his housing secretary, Jack Kemp, has fallen back on the pitch that the loss of values, family and otherwise, is the root cause for the plight of the inner cities. But having said the obvious, at no cost to the taxpayers, he dodges the immensity of the challenge to the country posed by the entrenched existence of an underclass in the society that woefully lacks the resources to change its plight.
Vice President Dan Quayle's speech in San Francisco attributing the plight of America's inner cities to "a poverty of values" was merely another recitation of the old Bush theme. But by taking a potshot at television character Murphy Brown for mothering a child without a husband, he has managed to put "family values" on the front burner, not to mention the front pages of virtually every newspaper in the country and all over the television networks.
One windfall for the Republicans from Quayle's lingering reputation as an oratorical loose cannon is that when he says something provocative, it is certain to draw heavy coverage by the news media. While many dismiss the crack at Murphy Brown as another in a long list of Quayle gaffes, and it has been fodder for the late-night comics, it has injected the issue of "family values" effectively into the 1992 campaign debate, and for that the Bush-Quayle strategists have to be satisfied.
It is true that the country generally is overly influenced by what it sees on television. But the notion that inner-city unwed motherhood will be encouraged by the example of Murphy Brown, a successful professional woman, having a baby out of wedlock mocks the reality of hard life in the ghetto that produces so many single mothers. That fact, though, doesn't render the reference any less effective politically in making "values" a campaign issue.
The prospective Democratic nominee, Bill Clinton, suggests that if Bush and Quayle are going to criticize television, they ought to go after "the crass commercialism and violence" that "are a bigger problem than Murphy Brown." But the political operatives who see "values" as the ticket to the re-election of Bush and Quayle know what they're doing.