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DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION '96

Democrats to Spotlight Pro-Family Agenda

Strategy: Speeches will address administration's efforts to bolster key group in GOP coalition. Clinton has targeted those with children as keystone of his reelection.

August 27, 1996|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

CHICAGO — Tonight's program for the Democratic National Convention pulls back the curtain on a cornerstone of President Clinton's strategy to win reelection this fall.

From the keynote speech by Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh to addresses from Vice President Al Gore's wife, Tipper, and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, convention planners say that Democrats will spotlight the administration's efforts to bolster families with children--a group that has been the central arch of the GOP coalition in presidential elections since the late 1960s.

Over the last year, Clinton has laid siege to these voters--and in the process launched an ambitious drive to reconfigure the politics of family. For decades, social conservatives have defined "pro-family" policy through two priorities: cutting government and taxes and restoring "traditional values" on such issues as abortion, gay rights and school prayer.

But since mid-1995, Clinton has systematically worked to build a competing pro-family agenda that uses government to provide parents with a seemingly bottomless array of "tools"--from a V-chip to screen out offensive television programming to the regulations he proposed last week to restrict tobacco advertising and marketing aimed at teenagers.

Some of Clinton's family-friendly initiatives--like the distribution of anti-truancy manuals or cell phones for Neighborhood Watch groups--have been so slight as to verge on self-parody. But even many conservatives agree that, taken together, Clinton's family agenda constitutes the most intellectually coherent effort yet by Democrats to reclaim the "pro-family" label from the right.

"Clearly the Clinton effort . . . is the most serious effort to date by the Democrats to compete for this territory," said Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, a leading social conservative organization.

And public opinion surveys indicate a payoff for the president. A new Gallup Poll showed that the public now identifies the GOP as the "party of family values" by only the slightest of margins, 45% to 41%.

Clinton's progress at compiling a family agenda that relies on activist government establishes a fundamental contrast with Dole--who is attempting to beat back the Democratic incursion by arguing that the best way to help harried parents is to reduce government, particularly by cutting taxes.

The election could turn on the results of this argument--with singles now reliably Democratic, Dole cannot hope to win if he does not carry married voters, who make up about two-thirds of the electorate. A recent poll found Clinton leading Dole by 22% among singles and battling Dole to a dead heat among married voters--who have given at least a plurality to every GOP presidential nominee since 1968.

"I'm not sure the Republicans have understood until just recently that there was now a competition underway for these kinds of voters," said Bauer. "But if, in fact, on election day, Clinton can close the gap among married voters, he will have won the election."

Clinton long has tried to overcome Republican advantages on values-related issues. But he turned greater attention toward the nation's 53 million married couples--particularly the 25 million with children under 18--last year, as he struggled to recover from the 1994 GOP landslide.

Among Clinton's advisors, Mark Penn, the campaign pollster, played the key conceptual role of the Clinton focus on families, while Dick Morris, the shadowy strategist for the president's reelection drive, has been central in refining the concept into specific policy initiatives.

From a political perspective, the agenda rests on two central insights. One lies in the definition of the nation's key swing voters. While Clinton's 1992 advisors largely viewed high-school-educated, working-class white voters as the pivotal group who decides elections, Penn argued that married people with children are the most important constituency the president must attract to expand his support from the 43% vote he received four years ago.

Second, Clinton's new strategists concluded that they could appeal to these families not through the conservative social issues that Republicans stressed but with targeted government programs meant to address concerns more immediate to their daily lives.

"These are the basic questions parents with kids are asking," said Penn. "The Republicans are back 15 years, and they aren't talking about the actual concerns of suburban families today."

From modest beginnings, Clinton's family agenda has spiraled in half a dozen different directions. Almost without exception, his proposals have allowed him to engage daily concerns of parents--without spending much money or establishing specific new programs.

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