Monday, October 16, 2000

Voters, candidates vague on family values

Issue 'relatively meaningless'

By Richelle Thompson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Family values for Newport resident Patricia Fann mean keeping the family together, expanding education programs and providing equal opportunities for everyone.

        For Jennifer Lukey of Mariemont, values are honesty, hard work and moral behavior.

        In this election, Al Gore and George W. Bush weave words such as integrity, honesty and compassionate conservatism into their speeches and show examples of their personal character. Still, candidates are deliberately vague, leaving voters to interpret what values means.

        Whatever the definition, people care. Values, morality and character consistently rank high in polls of important issues.

        But what values means seems to depend on who is listening.

        Some perceive values as a pledge not to tangle with White House interns. It is a Clinton-legacy catchword flush with promises of fidelity, truthfulness and morality. For others, family values in clude issues that are discussed at the dinner table or make it harder to balance the checkbook.

        “What are family values?” asks Ellen Heimert, 48, of Sycamore Township. “Who knows? For one family, it might be one thing; for another, it might be something different.”

Deliberately vague
               Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush have position papers for many of the standard campaign issues. They offer detailed plans for Medicare and Social Security, tax cuts and defense spending.

        Even on some so-called issues of morality, the candidates have clear sides. Mr. Gore supports abortion rights; Mr. Bush opposes abortions except in cases of

        rape or incest or to protect the mother's life.

        The issue of values is different. There is no values issue link on the candidates' Web sites. And no position papers to define what the candidates mean when they talk about values.

        Mr. Gore tries to counter President Clinton's infidelity with a passionate kiss on the Los Angeles stage of the Democratic National Convention. He plays the family card, stressing his long-term marriage to Tipper and even having his oldest daughter, Karenna, deliver a speech at the convention.

        Mr. Bush trumpets faith as his moral beacon. He tells voters how the values instilled by his new faith helped him overcome a reckless youth and conquer an alcohol problem.

        Talking about values and morality is safe ground for these candidates, says Lantham Camblin, a human development professor at the University of Cincinnati.

        As a result, values becomes a haven for vagueness, Dr. Camblin says.

        Politicians “cloak the real issues in some sort of mystique by calling them family values,” he says.

        Identifying an issue as a value gives a candidate control, he says. To argue against the issue would be to oppose values. The term “really has relatively no meaning,” Dr. Camblin says.

Clinton backlash

               Nevertheless, many voters associate family values with the perceived lack of moral leadership by Mr. Clinton.

        Family values means “being honest with what you believe and do,” Mrs. Heimert says. The Clinton scandal underlies the importance of electing a leader with integrity, she says.

        But Linster Bryant, an academic adviser at the University of Cincinnati, charges that “family values” is more empty campaign rhetoric.

        “I think family values is one of those areas Republicans are using to say the Democrats don't have morals because of the Clinton situation,” he says.

        Republicans tried to pin the sins of Mr. Clinton on Mr. Gore, but it didn't resonate with voters, says Gerald Kerns, a political science professor at the University of Dayton. Both candidates take a risk by pushing family values too much, he says.

        “These guys seem to be clean as a houndstooth.”

        Family values is “a loosy kind of term,” Dr. Kerns says. “I don't think (personal morality) plays as sharply as other family values issues like quality of my kids' education, college education, health insurance, Social Security. ... All these things are the real family values.”

The bottom line
               Ms. Lukey, who is undecided, will base her vote in large part on family values, which the 22-year-old associates with a good work ethic and integrity.

        She figures, “A president with strong family values is more likely to help the country out and make decisions that would be beneficial to everyone, not just one group.”

        But Tony Posey, 30, of Madisonville has a different view. He works two extra shifts a week to provide for his five children. His definition of family values: lower health care costs and more accessible child care. He is leaning toward Mr. Gore.

        Brothers Ted and Chris Hauser share jokes and a fondness for taters with gravy at the Country Tyme Diner in Sharonville. “Family values is incredibly important,” says Chris Hauser, 48, of West Chester. “But between these two guys, they both fit the bill.”

        More important than morality and character are their sister, who pays $300 a month for prescription drugs, and taxes that eat up profits at the small heating and air conditioning business Chris Hauser owns. They'll probably vote for Mr. Bush.

        Mrs. Heimert and her daughter, Katie Lee, 24, of Maineville consider family values important. But the Republican tax and health care plans woo them to support Mr. Bush, too.

        Mr. Gore gets Ms. Fann's vote because of the healthy economy. Next comes education and health care.

        Still, character is important, she says.

Polls don't enlighten
               Because of the wide range of meanings, family values is a difficult issue to poll, says Eric Rademacher, co-director of the University of Cincinnati's Institute for Policy Research.

        Family values is “one of those things that people use to simplify the complexity of the real issues involved,” he says.

        Some people may couch abortion in family values while others may use it as code for the role of government, the importance of religion or the future of their children.

        In the latest Ohio Poll conducted by the UC policy institute, voters listed health care as the top issue. Education, economy and taxes followed, trumping moral standards and values, which tied with Social Security.

        Mr. Rademacher says the institute plans to do more tailored polling before the election to find out how people define moral standards and values.

        “The trick in the poll,” he says, “is understanding what people mean by what they're telling you.”


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