WASHINGTON -- First, there was Bill Clinton conceding last year that Dan Quayle was more right than wrong when he attacked Murphy Brown for having an out-of-wedlock child. Last week, liberal Health Secretary Donna E. Shalala said as much, chalking up another one for traditional family values.
Vice President Al Gore held a conference this month on fatherhood. And this week, the White House opens its doors for a conference on building the American character.
Whose values are these, anyway?
Recognizing the public's concern that society's moral fiber is fraying at every seam, Democrats have seized on the issues of family, values, responsibility and character -- potent political weapons once held exclusively in conservative Republican and religious-right arsenals -- and are trying to make them their own.
"We've been talking about issues of personal responsibility as part and parcel of virtually everything we've done," said William A. Galston, a White House domestic policy adviser and former University of Maryland professor who has been pushing Democrats in this values-conscious direction for about a decade.
Republicans reaped mixed results when they brought out their "family values" crusade in the last presidential election, partly because voters were fixated on their wallets. But polls show that, with an upturned economy, more Americans are focusing on mores and values -- especially as violence tears at the nation -- and believe society is mired in a sort of spiritual recession.
In a recent Newsweek poll, 76 percent of those surveyed said they believed the nation was in a "moral and spiritual decline."
"The Book of Virtues," by William J. Bennett, has been a best-seller for 30 weeks.
"It's not 'the economy, stupid.' It's the culture," said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, a research group focusing on families and society.
"Specifically, it's the decline of civic virtues, good behavior. Smart people in public life are recognizing this trend," Mr. Blankenhorn said.
Mr. Clinton, who has made a practice of shrewdly co-opting such traditionally Republican issues as crime and welfare, has gone into high schools, advising students not to have children -- or sex -- until they are grown up and married.
And, yes, he has acknowledged on national television that "there were a lot of very good things" in Mr. Quayle's "Murphy Brown" speech, for which the former vice president was mercilessly derided by the left.
More and more Democratic politicians, mostly liberal intellectuals rethinking their positions on culture and values, are embracing a newfangled concept called "communitarianism." This movement, developed by Mr. Galston and Amitai Etzioni, a George Washington University sociology professor, stresses the need to balance individual rights with community responsibilities.
Mr. Blankenhorn says Democrats have been sounding cultural-values notes so often that they have neutralized these themes as divisive, political "wedge" issues. Democratic rhetoric, said, is becoming nearly indistinguishable from Republican or conservative rhetoric.
While Mr. Bennett, the former education secretary and drug policy director, talks about society's moral and spiritual decline as "a corruption of the heart," Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks of "a sleeping sickness of the soul."
Mr. Galston's 1991 book, "Liberal Purposes," examined many of the notions of virtues explored in Mr. Bennett's recent book.
"In different ways, we're talking about things that we share, if we're talking about personal responsibility, integrity, love of country, respect for the law," Mr. Galston said.
But, in fact, beyond the rhetoric -- once the talk of virtuous behavior is translated into policy -- the two ideological sides advocate very different things.
For conservative Republicans, "family values" are generally equated with a rejection of gay rights and abortion rights. Believing that sex education, with its references to contraception, sanctions teen-age sexual activity, they support programs that teach abstinence only.
While many Democrats have begun stressing sexual abstinence before marriage, the importance of stable marriages and traditional two-parent homes, they generally support gay rights as a matter of basic fairness and believe abortion is a constitutional right. On issues like sex education, they often believe that information about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS cuts down on both the diseases and out-of-wedlock births.
Like most conservatives, Robert Knight, director of cultural studies for the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank, said that he believes the Democrats' support of gay rights, for instance, is incompatible with family values.
"The Clinton White House has sold its soul to the gay-rights movement," Mr. Knight said. "Once you do that, it's hard to be pro-family. You can't have it both ways."
He said that he believes the Clinton White House is paying lip service to family values, "talking the language of family values, while promoting policies that are hostile to families."
As examples, he points to the president's budget and tax policies, the appointment of openly gay people in the administration, condom ads created by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Endowment of the Arts' subsidy of art with gay themes.
'Challenge his policy'
Similarly, William Kristol, Mr. Quayle's former chief of staff, who recently founded the Project for the Republican Future, an activist GOP think tank, says the way for Republicans to seize the leadership on the issue is "not to compete with Bill Clinton in rhetoric, but to challenge his policy" on issues like health care and welfare reform. "If the deeds don't match the talk, the notion that the talk is politically motivated gains ground very fast."
But Mr. Galston, an architect of the president's national service program, argues that values and responsibility have been central to the administration's position on domestic issues -- especially crime, where the attorney general has stressed prevention through strengthening of families and communities, and welfare reform, where the president's proposal includes such moderate-to-conservative ideas as requiring most adults on welfare to work after two years and allowing states to freeze the size of grants to women who have more children while on welfare.
Such policy approaches are still a source of tension inside the Democratic Party -- and in the administration -- between members of the liberal faction, like Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders, and the centrist "New Democrats."
But the balance of that debate has shifted in the past decade. In 1986, when Mr. Galston told Democrats that they would pay a price if they neglected the ethical and moral dimensions of family policy -- strengthening marriage and the two-parent home, for example -- he was lambasted by party stalwarts. Ann Richards, then the Texas state treasurer and now governor, denounced his remarks as racist, sexist and anti-gay -- and unrepresentative of the Democratic Party.
"Between 1986 and 1992, something changed," said Mr. Galston, who was issues director for Walter F. Mondale's presidential campaign. "The '84 defeat was sobering. The '88 defeat was shattering. People began to wonder, in the wake of the '88 election, whether the kind of vibrations the party was giving off were defensible -- politically and substantively."
For his part, Mr. Clinton, a founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council, which has tried to move the party to the center, has understood the potency of these cultural themes since he was governor of Arkansas. He has always made overtures to churchgoing middle Americans, along with his more liberal constituencies.
Still, because of the ideological tension that remains within the party, Democrats often step onto values-laden turf gingerly.
Mr. Galston points out that "no endorsement of any particular proposal is implied" by the administration's participation in this Friday's conference on "Character-Building for a Democratic, Civil Society."
The conference, to be attended by a bipartisan group from Congress, academics, community leaders and the media, will focus on developing character-building programs in public schools. That concept is opposed by the religious right, which is suspicious of the values that would be taught and, on the left, by civil libertarians who fear the programs come close to teaching religion.
John Martin, executive director of the Character Education Partnership, one of several groups that have sprouted in the past year to work on such programs, says that the administration has changed its position 180 degrees after becoming convinced that "character education" appeals to most of mainstream America.
"Initially, we didn't get a very positive response," he said. "Now, the support is solid and growing."
Support for such a movement is growing in Congress, too, where a handful of senators, including Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, have formed a bipartisan "Character Counts" coalition to encourage character-building in schools.
Mr. Blankenhorn said that he believes the market for this message -- and for the basic idea of imbuing society's institutions with messages of virtuous, right-doing behavior -- stretches from Rush Limbaugh conservatives to moderate Democrats.
He said that he believes Democrats' embrace of values will strengthen the party, "and bring it more in line with the primary concerns of the population. Do you think only Republicans would keep Bill Bennett's book on the best-seller list for so long?"