Democrats try to reframe heated debate over ‘values’

  • Ellen Goodman
  • Saturday, July 31, 2004 9:00pm
  • Opinion

BOSTON – Before the convention, I tried to organize a betting pool on how many times the Democrats would use the word values. I quit after DNC head Terry McAuliffe gave his preview of the values on the convention menu: “patriotism, duty, honor, responsibility, opportunity, freedom, family and faith.” Hey, you want fries with that?

Values, values everywhere. Here are the entries in my notebook: American values, working-class values, heartland values, mainstream values, blue-collar values, democratic values and, of course, Democratic values. By the middle of the week, it was enough to send me to Filene’s Basement in search of the real thing.

I’m not surprised that Democrats made “values” their most popular word right after “strength” and before the up-and-coming “wisdom.” Having been subject by Republicans to The Values Monologues, they deserved A Values Dialogue.

Back in the old days when conventions actually nominated candidates, “American values” were words used to distinguish our democracy from dictatorships. But in 1980, Ronald Reagan and his pollsters began the era of values politics that we know and love (or hate) so well. Values went from being a bromide to being a wedge.

Today, when Americans hear “values,” most think of hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and school prayer. More to the point, when they hear “values,” most Americans think “conservative.”

It’s a little bit like my favorite line from “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!” The agent for a drugged-out, womanizing hunk of a movie star tries to convince him that he shouldn’t date the virtuous small-town girl. Why not? “Your values are different. For instance, she has them.”

If there is anything that has infuriated the Democrats more than the idea that Skull and Bones Bush is considered a good ol’ boy while Skull and Bones Kerry is considered an elitist, it’s the subtle accusation that they don’t have values.

So the V-word was liberally – and moderately – sprinkled into speeches and sound bites for three very different reasons. The first was a deliberate refusal to cede faith or family to the right. The second was an attempt to reconfigure the values debate, so that the V-word was more cement than wedge. In convention-speak, they wanted to talk about values that unite us, not divide us. The third was to connect the disappearing dots between principles and policies.

Bill Clinton, who managed to get three buzzwords in one sound bite, said “Strength and wisdom are not opposing values.” Democrats, he added, won’t be arguing about “who is a good or a bad person, but what is the best way to build a safe and prosperous world.”

Ronald Reagan Jr. beat his father’s wedge into a peace symbol. In his powerful case for stem-cell research, he overtly compared the pro-life value of choosing “undifferentiated cells multiplying in a tissue culture” with helping “a living breathing person – a parent, a spouse, a child.”

John Edwards went on to say “Where I come from you don’t judge someone’s values based on how they use that word in a political ad.” He told stories about families in the “two Americas” who ought to be in the same America.

And finally, John Kerry took the values debate head-on, attacking “narrow appeals masquerading as values.” He said “For four years, we’ve heard a lot of talk about values. But values spoken without actions taken are just slogans.” He talked about family values and after-school care, family values and health care, family values and “jobs where, when you put in a week’s work, you can actually pay your bills, provide for your children and lift up the quality of your life.”

We are told that one of the most potent questions pollsters ask about candidates is this: Does he share your values? Kerry and Bush are neck and neck for their share. But in everyday conversation people don’t use the V-word much. They talk about specifics: kids and elderly parents, bills and war.

Some of the most powerful moments in this convention were the life narratives, not the slogans on premade posters. The story of Barack Obama, whose Kenyan father and Kansan mother gave birth to a candidate for the Illinois Senate. The story of a vice presidential candidate who was the first in his family to go to college. A presidential candidate who was one of few in his Ivy League world to go to war.

The question – does he share your values? – ought to be tested against what he’s done and what he wants to do. Not changing lingo but changing lives.

Over time the word “values” has lost its luster. It has become the penny stock of conservative politics. This year the Democrats are trying to put the buzz back into the buzzword.

Ellen Goodman is a Boston Globe columnist. Contact her by writing to

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