The Murphy Brown Policy

There they go again. Only this time, instead of Willie Horton, the GOP is making Murphy Brown its symbol of what's wrong with the liberal elites. The fictitious Murphy, an unmarried TV journalist, gave birth to a baby boy last week. And Vice President Dan Quayle went nuts. He decried the Hollywood glamorization of Murphy's plight; and, in a neck-wrenching segue, blamed the Los Angeles riots on the "poverty of values" that Murphy's out-of-wedlock momdom represents. Quayle didn't see the show: a spokesman explained that the Quayle family never watches TV on school nights. But the vice president's comments jolted the country, igniting a long-simmering debate about cultural values and the American family.

The Bush campaign announced months ago that it would make the decline in so-called traditional values a major theme this fall. But Quayle's attack on Murphy Brown-played by actress Candice Bergen-left many top Republicans puzzled. "You can't be strongly pro-life and then criticize single mothers," says a GOP woman appointee. "This is a major blunder." Indeed, the confusion over which note to strike was evident in the public statements of both President Bush and spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. Bush said he prefers two-parent families (who doesn't?) but didn't want to "get into the details of a very popular television show" (38 million people watched Murphy scream and swear her way through the simulated labor). Fitzwater started out criticizing Murphy; by nightfall, he sounded like he was ready to propose marriage.

It's not easy to devise a winning us-against-them strategy when it comes to the American family. There's just too many them. The '50s fantasy of mom and dad and 2.2 kids went the way of phonograph records and circle pins. The modern family is all kinds of arrangements-including single mothers. Dan Quayle is right about some things. The absence of fathers is one of the central pathologies of the underclass. As a society, we do need to address the spiraling teen-pregnancy rate, especially in the inner cities. But that's a different phenomenon from Murphy Brown, an over-40, overachieving figment of some screenwriter's imagination. If personal responsibility is the test, Murphy passes.

By mixing his metaphors, Quayle risks offending other groups, including Republican women essential to Bush's victory. Everyone agrees that values are an important issue. Democrats--belatedly--have begun to stress personal-responsibility themes. And there is a great deal of common ground on what to do, despite the rhetorical fog. Last week it wasn't just the message that rattled people; it was the messenger. "He's the goof-off made good; and when he starts wagging his finger at us, we don't like it," says Ann Lewis, a Democratic consultant. Quayle's background of privilege makes him a natural target. His bootstraps were pulled up by his well-connected family. How can he relate to an inner-city youngster who never had a break? Quayle's comments are discounted because of who he is and his persistent unpopularity in the polls.

Quayle's foray into family issues provoked lots of jokes, invigorating Johnny Carson's final week. But Quayle thinks he's onto something. Lisa Schiffren, a 32-year-old speechwriter, suggested early this month that the veep cite Murphy Brown as an example of the moral decay in pop culture. Quayle liked the idea. Then, after reading reviews of Murphy's baby shower, attended by real-life anchorwomen, he wondered "why the show was celebrating single parenthood." A Mother's Day column in The Washington Post made the same point, calling "this new cultural idea ... hostile to the needs of children."

The politics of values is clearly up for grabs. Bush said the word "family" 19 times in a recent speech at Notre Dame and got almost no coverage. Much of Ross Perot's appeal stems from his embodiment of old-fashioned American virtues. Democrat Bill Clinton moved aggressively last week to counter Quayle. He assailed the GOP for having used family values as code language for policies of neglect, and he nailed Democrats for thinking money alone could make a difference. Clinton's public policy is value-driven: he calls for a crackdown on deadbeat parents and welfare reform that would require recipients to work after two years. He says "it's wrong for children to have children"--and favors sex education at an early age, another loaded issue.

Bush aides think Clinton's personal baggage undermines his credibility and that if the election is fought on values, Bush wins. The reason the White House is tacking right can be found in the polls. Bush is running third in California, behind Perot and Clinton. In a three-way race Bush can win if he turns out the conservative GOP base. Otherwise, Quayle would never have attacked a situation comedy with higher ratings than the one he's part of in Washington.