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`Family Values'

IF the Houston convention is an indication, the GOP plans to "outfamily" the Democrats in the fall election campaign. "Family values" - the new Republican anthem - is a powerful theme. The very words, family and values, speak to groups as varied as ethnic voters, older voters, and the evangelical community that made up 40 percent of the Houston delegates.

The words are aimed to bolster another GOP theme - trust. Call it political jujitsu: Democrats call for change. Then Republicans ask: Who better to oversee change than George Bush, a man of experience who supports traditional values and isn't tainted by the 1960s cultural revolution - as Bill Clinton presumably is?

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Yet beyond being generally for them, politicians aren't stating what family values mean. The subject caused clashes in Houston on issues ranging from abortion to women, gays, work, education, children, diversity, and campaign tactics. Blending politics, government, and "family values" isn't as simple as the rhetoric-shapers imply.

At best, family values are a deeply held moral ideal and practice - of tolerance, forgiveness, and loyalty. The split between the GOP platform's total ban on abortion and Mr. Bush's own comment that he would "support" a granddaughter who made the hypothetical decision to have an abortion shows how complex it is.

At worst, in political terms, family values can be demogogic - a substitute for earlier exploitive themes, like the Republicans' emphasis on the pledge of allegiance in 1988. That year Democrats' patriotism was questioned; now their "family values" may be. It was disappointing to hear Dan Quayle's chief of staff, William Kristol, say, when asked about sexual scandals involving film star Woody Allen, that Mr. Allen was "a good Democrat."

The mean-spiritedness of such comments, and others in Houston (including outright lies about Hillary Clinton's law-journal articles on children's rights), don't reflect good values, family or otherwise.

America has changed since the 1950s, a time when family roles were more clearly and rigidly spelled out - especially for women. Along with the historic (and bitterly opposed) expansion of liberties for all Americans came permissive excesses. America as a family still needs healing.

Family values are too important to be abused in elections strategy. If serious, the GOP will get specific on shoring up families - especially the needs of children. Only 26 percent of US families are traditional mom-and-pop groupings. Policies helping families are most needed. Even Republican Sen. Alphonse D'Amato of New York says: "[No] party has a corner on family values."

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