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Jewish World Review Oct. 11, 1999 /31 Tishrei, 5760

Charles Krauthammer

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Slouching Toward
The Center -- THERE ARE A LOT OF WAYS to say "becoming decadent" or "losing our moral moorings" or "in steep social decline." "Slouching toward Gomorrah" is not the one that comes most readily to mind.

But that was precisely the way George W. Bush phrased it in his speech to the Manhattan Institute in New York last Tuesday. "Too often, on social issues, my party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah."

Interesting locution. "Slouching Towards Gomorrah" happens to be the title of Robert Bork's bestseller decrying American cultural decline. And Bush did not just allude to the title. He took exception to Bork's very premise when he said: "Something unexpected happened on the way to cultural decline. Problems that seemed inevitable proved to be reversible."

Of course, Bork did not originate the "slouching" image. But Bush was hardly dissing William Butler Yeats. Bush was doing an ever so subtle Sister Souljah on Robert Bork.

You remember Sister Souljah. She is the black rap artist known for inflammatory racial rhetoric whom President Clinton pointedly denounced in a 1992 campaign speech before Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition. It helped define Clinton as a Democrat who was not a captive of his party's staunchest constituency, and helped position him as a centrist in the general election.

Bush's Manhattan Institute speech was clearly meant to distance him from his party's extremes and position him as a centrist too. Not content just to define his own conservatism as "the creed of social progress" concerned with "human problems" and not "CBO and GNP," he conjured up a foil with his veiled reproach to Bork and Borkian pessimism.

Just when we thought W. was struggling to get out from under the shadow of dad, it turns out he's trying to get out from under the cloud of Robert Bork. Bork is a central figure among social conservatives, not just for the valiant way he soldiered through his failed confirmation to the Supreme Court in 1987, but even more so for the moral passion of his subsequent writings excoriating every manifestation of American decline from euthanasia to abortion.

To be sure, the Bush speech was full of specifics and programs on how to improve education. Some very sound ideas, although none of them varied greatly from the general conservative approach of testing, excellence and vouchers--or last-resort "scholarships" as Bush delicately calls them--when the public schools utterly fail.

But Bush's "slouching" speech will no more be remembered for its content than will Clinton's Sister Souljah speech.

In the 2000 campaign, issuelessness reigns. Positioning is everything. Indeed, the main function of "issues"--education, health care, Medicare--is not to provide governing programs or even debating fodder. It is to serve as a vehicle for political positioning.

What, after all, are the issues in a time of amazing prosperity at home and tranquillity abroad? The traditional cutting-edge issues of taxes and abortion are both being finessed. Taxes died after the Republican Congress went home this summer and failed to find any resonance in the electorate for a tax cut.

And abortion is being smothered by the vast number of Republicans who do not want it barring their road back to the White House. (Invaluable aid is provided by Pat Buchanan's imminent defection to the Reform Party, which is indifferent to abortion--making the point that even a pro-life totem such as Buchanan will play down abortion in order to fight for bigger prizes.)

And what, on the Democratic side, are the real issue differences between Al Gore and Bill Bradley?

There is but one overriding issue in this campaign season: electability. Bradley is rising largely because Gore looks--as Pat Moynihan so rudely pointed out--like a loser. And George W. continues his high-wire act--fantastic fund-raising and runaway poll numbers--because he looks like a winner.

How to keep looking like a winner? Slouch toward the center. With electability next November being the main campaign issue, the major candidates are not playing to their extremes--as they traditionally do to win their hard-core party primary voters--later to tack back. They are straddling the center now.

George W. begins by attacking his own party in Congress for a budgetary device that would have delayed paying income support to the working poor. "Balancing the budget on the backs of the poor," he said with Gephardtian flourish.

Then he triangulates off Robert Bork.

Next thing you know he'll say he loves the Edmund Morris book.

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©1999, Washington Post Co.