The real power of the United States comes from its values, said both Al Gore and Texas Gov. George Bush during Wednesday night’s debate. But the meaning of “values” remains illusive.
As the presidential candidates met for the second time, it was hard to miss their repeated use of the words “values,” “nation building” and “humble.”
Fred Dolan, associate professor who teaches political philosophy in UC Berkeley’s rhetoric department said each has a subtle message.
Values is usually the code word candidates use to court women voters, because women are concerned about raising children who have values, he said.
But the word values took a darker militaristic turn away from family values Wednesday night.
“The use of words like values and nation-building reflect the policy debate about U.S. military intervention that’s been going on for a long time,” Dolan said. “And both candidates know they must present it in a way that’s understandable to the average American – whoever that is.”
Vice President Gore first tossed out the word “values,” when he was asked what he would do with the great responsibility of being president. “I see it as a question of values,” he replied. He said the strength and power of the nation comes from values.
And when asked about his views on U.S. intervention around the world, he said: “We have to protect our capacity to push forward what America’s all about. That means not only military strength and our values, it also means keeping our economy strong.”
“When Gore used the word values, he was talking about the United States playing a role in shaping the post-World War II world,” Dolan said. Many recall this time as a golden era of American foreign policy.
But Bush confused that subliminal message by connecting values to nation-building.
Bush asserted that the United States must be humble, not arrogant in its dealings with other nations, although he, too, could not resist throwing in a dash of values.
“I think the United States must be humble and must be proud and confident of our values, but humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course,” Bush said.
Dolan sees nation-building as “a code word for people who want to see the U.S. be the only super power in the world,” he said.
Bush used the phrase nation-building – by which he means the act of the United States building up developing nations – 12 times during the debate.
He was expressing his Republican view that the United States should not overextend itself by placing troops in countries where new governments are taking form.
“I am worried about over-committing our military around the world,” Bush said. “I want to be judicious in its use.”
Gore said the idea of nation-building is a “pejorative phrase” and that intervening in other countries’ development depends on the situation.
While Gore continued to emphasize values, Bush kept coming back to humility. Dolan suggested his use of the word five times may be in reference to Gore’s reputation of being condescending.
“Bush has been constantly talking about humility,” said Dolan. When Bush, on the other hand, says he wants the United States to be humble, he means he doesn’t want to play a major role in foreign affairs.
“He represents the forces that are more isolationist, with a narrowly defined definition of national interests.”
Perhaps what they both really meant was that this country needs humble nation-building values.