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The GOP's 'Jimmy Carter'


VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Former presidential candidate and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson has an interesting theory about the next presidential election.

"Bill Clinton may be setting up a Republican Jimmy Carter -- somebody who talks about honesty, decency, morality and spiritual values," he told me. "Such a person would find a warm reception in the American electorate." Mr. Robertson said, "If the Republican Party would give its nomination to [Missouri Republican Sen.] John Ashcroft, he'd win the presidency."

Mr. Robertson says the nation's prosperity clouds the public's concern about our moral direction, especially that of children. That's why in almost every statement President Clinton makes, he refers to "our children" or "the children." Mr. Robertson believes the public would respond to an "I'll never lie to you" Jimmy Carter-type messenger if his message is something he practices as well as preaches.

An 'honest man'

"I firmly believe that an honest man with a great deal of moral integrity, [who is] quite intelligent, very experienced and who carries within himself Midwest, heartland-of-America values, would do very, very well all over the country," said Mr. Robertson.

Mr. Ashcroft, who is a minister's son and has written a book about the values instilled in him by his late father, was the commencement speaker at Mr. Robertson's Regent University. He seemed to be road-testing campaign themes. Moral utterances are tricky. You have to speak about them in ways that don't make the listener think you are "holier" than they are, and at the same time you can't be a hypocrite.

Mr. Ashcroft's commencement address had a little politics in it and some concern about drug use among the young, but it mostly addressed the importance of developing good character and virtue.

He quoted sociologist James Q. Wilson: "Drug use is wrong because it is immoral, and it is immoral because it enslaves the mind and destroys the soul." An appeal to an unchanging standard by which right and wrong are measured is not always the first thing one notices in contemporary political discourse. Not many can deliver such a message without inviting an investigation of their own moral shortcomings. Like Jimmy Carter, Mr. Ashcroft appears to have the right message at the right time.

Preaching such a message to "a wicked and adulterous generation," as one ancient writer said of his contemporaries, requires a delicate balance. The baby boomers like to feel guilty, but they don't want to feel shame. If Mr. Ashcroft can get them to "repent" without taking responsibility for the moral chaos they helped unleash in the '60s, he might win considerable support.

Mr. Ashcroft seemed to be putting politics in its proper place when he told the graduates: "The most important thing we can ever aspire to be is good parents. And the most important thing we can ever aspire to do is transmit to our own children the values our parents gave to us." He cited a recent poll of teen-agers that found parents were their most important role models. Could such a finding help reshape how parents work and think when it comes to the amount of time required to rear successful children?

Materialistic society

In a recent interview, Mr. Ashcroft told me that we now stigmatize what we once affirmed and we affirm what we once stigmatized. He knows that laws alone cannot redeem a society mesmerized by materialism and only sometimes interested in character and moral development. But he believes that political leaders can help refocus public attention.

That seems to be what Pat Robertson was getting at when he said, "In the last election, surveys I saw taken of voters after they left the polls showed a vast majority did not like Clinton, but they said, 'You Republicans gave us no alternatives. . . .' Had Republicans nominated a vigorous, attractive individual, he could have beaten Clinton."

Like Jimmy Carter in 1976 who, after Richard Nixon, gave voters a chance to cleanse themselves? The times may be different, but the unease over the nation's moral direction is the same.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/13/98

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