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A QUESTION OF VALUES
MORAL ISSUES INVOLVE MUCH MORE THAN OPPOSITION TO GAY MARRIAGE, ABORTION

The first sign that the far right intends to capitalize on this month's election came shortly after Republican Sen. Arlen Specter cautioned President Bush against nominating judges who would seek to reverse the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion. The right blew its cork, and demanded that the party deny Specter his pending chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The right's theory is that Republicans won the presidency and both houses of Congress in an election that was about "values," a claim that prompts two observations: One, the significance of values in the election is unclear, and two, whose values are we talking about? After all, good stewardship of the air and water is a value. Honesty about the cause of war is a value. Not toying with science for political purposes is a value.

The Republican right would have it that the only important American values are opposing abortion, suppressing homosexuals and not questioning its take on values. Yet the assertion that the election was about values is based on results of a questionable Election-Day exit poll that lumped an undefined category of "moral values" in with such other specific voter concerns as terrorism, Iraq and the economy.

Indeed, pre-election polling consistently showed those three issues at the top of voter concerns, yet with the exit poll's inclusion of an amorphous category called "values," that result suddenly changed. And while most of the voters citing values in those polls pulled the lever for Bush, it is also true that fewer of them cited issues relating to values in previous surveys. So what gives?

The answer surely must include the fact that most Americans not currently behind bars believe they have values and that those values are important to how they live their lives. Honesty, compassion, trustworthiness and a commitment to fairness animate the daily existence of tens of millions of Americans of all political parties and faiths.

But the spinmasters of the right are pitching the exit poll as proof that the election was about abortion, gay marriage and the other cultural touchstones of social conservatives. On the strength of Republicans' electoral success, and perhaps believing the results of a misleading poll, they are saddling up for a charge at the issues that drive them to distraction.

That sets up a dilemma for elected Republicans who know that most Americans support abortion rights and don't want a Supreme Court that will retreat on that issue. It will also present observers with a window on how much Bush intends to reach out to Democrats during his second term, and to whether he will succumb to the kind of debilitating hubris that has defined so many second-term presidencies.