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Jewish World Review Sept. 19, 2000 / 18 Elul 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Bush let values issue slip away -- TEXAS GOV. George W. Bush (R) ought to own the moral values issue in this campaign, but he's letting it slip away to Vice President Al Gore and his running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.).

Last week, Gore, Lieberman and President Clinton leapt to exploit the Federal Trade Commission's explosive report on Hollywood's violence-peddling to children. Bush's response was halfhearted.

Gore threatened government regulation if the movie, recording and video game industries don't voluntarily stop marketing violent material to children in six months.

Bush just said he would "work with" Hollywood CEOs "to produce a better product." However, he said the major policing problem belongs to parents.

This follows a campaign-long pattern. One study after another has come out detailing the escalation of sex and violence in popular culture and the social damage it does. Yet Bush has reacted weakly, as if his campaign -- not Gore's -- were the recipient of Hollywood's money and political support.

Meantime, Gore has been a ripe target for Bush attacks on the issue, particularly for toeing the entertainment-industry line. But Bush hadn't exploited the issue until this week -- and, even then, his critique of Gore's credibility got lost in most media reports.

Bush campaign officials did e-mail a 1999 Los Angeles Times story describing Gore's assurances to Hollywood donors that he had nothing to do with Clinton's request that the FTC conduct the marketing-of-violence study.

They also reminded reporters of a 1987 meeting -- prior to Gore's first run for president -- in which Gore and his wife, Tipper, apologized to Hollywood executives for the campaign they'd waged against violence- and sex-laden record lyrics. Thereafter, the Gores went silent on the issue for 13 years.

But Bush's own use of this ammunition was limp. He said Gore "could have taken a strong stand" last year, but didn't. "Now that it's closer to Election Day, maybe he's changing his tune," Bush added.

Former Education Secretary Bill Bennett was more direct, calling Gore's statements "one of the grossest pieces of lying and duplicity I've seen, even in the Clinton-Gore era."

Lynne Cheney, wife of Bush's vice-presidential candidate, took a step in the right direction at a Senate hearing on Wednesday by accusing Democrats of hypocrisy for taking Hollywood money and often failing to criticize the donors' products. But the corrosion of U.S. culture is a theme that needs to be sounded by Bush and Dick Cheney themselves -- and often.

The public morals issue has traction. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that "encouraging high moral standards and values" is one of the top criteria voters will use to judge the candidates.

Bush has led on the issue in the past -- 45 to 40 percent in April, 46 to 37 percent in July -- but now the candidates are tied at 44 percent.

The latest Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll showed, similarly, that when voters were asked which candidate is better at promoting family values, Bush led 43 to 35 percent as late as mid-August. Now, Gore leads 43 to 35 percent.

Asked which candidate would be a better role model for children today, voters prefer Gore 45 to 33 percent. In June 1999, Bush was preferred, 43 to 31 percent.

Lots of Republicans think that the question of "moral values" reminds people of Clinton's troubles and that the way to recoup on the issue is to relink the veep to his president.

The Republican National Committee's ads featuring Gore's infamous Buddhist temple visit are a step in that direction and may be followed with other references to 1996 fund-raising irregularities and Gore's efforts to duck culpability for them.

Before the race is over, the GOP conceivably could make an issue of Gore's defense of Clinton after impeachment, although all previous party efforts to exploit impeachment have backfired.

Already, according to the ABCNews/Washington Post survey, Gore is perceived as running a more positive campaign than Bush. Dredging up the Monica Lewinsky case won't improve the situation.

Gore's gains can be partly attributed to his selection of Lieberman, whose example could help Bush. Bush should strive to out-Lieberman Gore on the popular culture issue -- that is, advocate the tough stands on sex, violence and values that Lieberman has, but Gore didn't dare to while courting Hollywood.

For instance, Lieberman and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) are co-sponsors of a bill requiring a uniform labeling system -- akin to warnings on tobacco products -- on all movies, video games and recordings that describes the content and age-appropriateness of the material.

The bill requires retailers to enforce age restrictions and face fines if they sell inappropriate material to children -- or, in the case of movie theaters, let them into R-rated movies.

Lieberman says he still supports the legislation, which the entertainment industry detests, but Gore did not make a point of endorsing it. Bush should -- and ask why Gore doesn't.

Moreover, Lieberman and McCain have written to the Federal Communications Commission calling for hearings into whether broadcast networks are serving the public interest, as they are required to do by law, when they fill the airwaves with depictions of recreational sex.

That's another crusade Gore hasn't undertaken that Bush should. Besides being right, it could help him politically. After all, parents are more worried about what Hollywood is doing to their kids than about what Bill Clinton did with Monica.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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