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The Nation : The Children's Campaign: When Emotionalism Masks Hard Choices

November 06, 1994|John Heilemann | John Heilemann is Washington correspondent for the Economist

WASHINGTON — In campaign after campaign this year, the only thing trendier than trashing Washington was the Save the Children Fund's trademark necktie. Dave McCurdy, the moderate Democratic Senate candidate in Oklahoma, sports one. So does Michael DeWine, the conservative Republican running in Ohio. Bill Clinton says it's one of his favorites. Once worn only by the terminally PC, the tie--with its multicolored swarm of smiling kids--has spread like some sartorial virus, sprouting from the collars of candidates of every ideological stripe.

Empty symbols are, no doubt, as common in political races as bad food and baseless accusations. And candidates have always labored mightily to display fondness for their children--and their spouses and their pets--as a sign of their decency. In Washington state, the political neophyte trying to unseat House Speaker Thomas S. Foley goes so far as to count the fact that Foley is not a father as one reason he should be ousted.

But this fall, politicians across the country have taken the infantilization of politics a step farther. Candidates are now trying to turn every topic under the sun--from crime to welfare to the economy--into a "children's issue."

This tactic serves different ends for each party. Yet, they are up to the same thing: softening the edges of a campaign that has been unrelentingly harsh. With a sullen electorate harboring serious misgivings about Democrats and Republicans alike, the parties are using emotionalism about children to ease voters' minds--and to obscure both the issues and what they really believe in.

Injecting kids into any political debate comes naturally to Democrats, who have always been more comfortable when it comes to the touchy and the feelly. But when old-style liberalism is constantly being challenged by more hard-headed approaches, couching any number of issues in terms of the well-being of children is about more than affirming the party's commitment to society's weakest members. It's about trying to advance the agendas of a range of traditional but now unfashionable Democratic constituencies--minorities, the poor, environmentalists, big spenders--without ever mentioning them by name.

As the New Republic's Mickey Kaus has pointed out, the master of this art is Marian Wright Edelman, whose Children's Defense Fund has gained great influence by pitching poverty policy as a contest between helpless tots and those who would sacrifice their interests. In Massachusetts last month, you could hear Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy pushing a similar line: Taxing the rich was not a matter of class or redistribution, but of fairness to "future generations."

It's not just paleoliberal Democrats doing this. Out west, market-minded neoliberals like Gov. Roy Romer (D-Colo.) frame the environmental debate as a contest between "shortsighted" development and "a livable planet for our children." And from coast to coast, Democrats such as McCurdy have portrayed the difference between the parties on economic policy as one of tax breaks for the rich versus "investing in our children's future." Sometimes such rhetoric is almost honest; more often it's a way of making tough choices sound obvious.

The Republican strategy is more schizophrenic. On issues where the party is united--typically those where a hard-edged message appeals to voter fears--the kids that get talked about are threatening teen-agers. In Texas, the gubernatorial campaign being waged by George W. Bush has, like those of many other Republicans, revolved largely around promises to get tough on law and order. Bush's trouble is that Gov. Ann Richards has built more jail cells than all her predecessors combined; and, as elsewhere, the crime rate is falling.

No matter. Bush and other Republicans argue that what matters is juvenile crime, and that is rising. Maybe--statistics are unclear. But suppose it's true. You might think that a candidate forever shouting about youth crime would offer policies designed to deal specifically with it. Wrong. Instead, Republicans pledge to build more prisons.

Lots of voters like the sound of that. But they are not so sure about the areas where many Republicans are drifting to the right. So out comes the child-friendly rhetoric to smooth over harsh surfaces to make the party's "big tent" even bigger. Heard that the GOP's "Contract With America" offers tax cuts for the wealthy? Don't worry: The biggest is a per-child tax credit to "strengthen the family," so it must be progressive. Uneasy about remarks like that of McCurdy's religious-right opponent, James M. Inhofe, calling for a "moral revolution"? Fear not: He just wants to make America "a decent place for all God's children."

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