For a brief moment there, one could have forgotten that it was only last decade that the Republican party championed itself as the party of “family values.” So loud and outspoken was their mantra, that it came to constitute the basis of their party platform.
Dan Quayle warned against the dangers of single motherhood as portrayed in the TV show “Murphy Brown. Bill Bennett went to the top of the best seller lists with his “Book of Virtues.” Rap lyrics were condemened as inciteful and the Christian Coalition was the hottest group in town. The Republican Contract with America-ten years old-sought to “to reinforce the central role of families in American society.” The infidelties of President Clinton fueled the morality crusades. Governor George W. Bush campaigned for the presidency promising to “restore honor and dignity to the White House” and the 2000 Republican platform called for a “restoration of timeless values.”
Since Bush’s inauguration, however, the GOP has been largely silent on the issue of family values. Sexual promiscuity on television and racy song lyrics have passed by without so much as a peep from Republican leaders. Shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and South Park were lauded without objection. On Friends, characters joked about promiscuous sex-and Republicans were virtually silent. Paul O’Neill traveled around African with that expletive-excreting Bono. Almost overnight, Republicans went from declaring Marilyn Manson as the antichrist to touting Eminem as a lyrical genius. Everywhere you looked, the moral blowhards largely went silent.. Next thing you know, the President of the United States takes time out of his National Press Club speech to salute the Prince of Darkness-Ozzy Osbourne.
Of course, this silencing of the guns had its reasons. The impeachment of Bill Clinton left many Americans with a sour taste for moral grandstanding, and the GOP had to lay low for a while after they were outed for being equally vulnerable to sin (Henry Hyde and Newt Gingrich’s affairs, Bill Bennett and Rush Limbaugh’s various addictions, etc.)
Recently, however, the issue of family values has found its way back into mainstream politics, and during this election year, Republicans seem more eager than ever before to return this issue back to the forefront of American politics. President Bush speaks about his proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage by discussing our “cultural, religious and natural roots” and “our most basic social institutions.” He continues to sell his war on terrorism as a war of values: freedom vs. tyranny, good vs. evil. Janet’s Super Bowl expose has renewed efforts to cleanse our airwaves. Rumors of a John Kerry affair made Republicans eager to paint the Democratic frontrunner as a descendant of Republican Enemy #1 (and, according to them, the most flagrant violator of family values): Bill Clinton. Partial birth abortion and stem cell research had Bush talking about the “sanctity of life.” Ashcroft has gone around draping cloths over naked statues everywhere. The sudden embrace of this old school political issue suggests that the GOP’s electoral strategy relies heavily on appealing to the traditional GOP base: religious, conservative whites.
But Republicans should be careful: However deft Republicans are at exciting the Puritanical tendencies of their base against Democrats, they’d be wise to reject this trend during this election year and adopt a less stratifying and polarizing stance.
The upcoming election will be at least as close as 2000, and both Bush and Kerry will have little success winning the White House by simply exciting the party base. Accordingly, the Republican push for family values-which are frequently seen as intrusive and excessive-appeal largely to those already committed to Bush’s reelection, and scare off undecideds. Although social issues play an important role in presidential elections, their importance is blunted during difficult economic and war periods.
Bush’s reelection campaign looks to gloss over some of the weaknesses of his presidency by attempting to steer the debate towards theoretical abstractions of “values” where Bush’s adept command of spirituality allows him to appear more formidable and commanding. Such a move, unfortunately, discards the truest electoral mantra (fatally forgotten, coincidentally, by his own father): “It’s the economy, stupid.”
It is possible that the resurgence of family values has little to do with politics and more to do with principle. Bush’s stewardship at the helm is largely shaped by his own religious convictions, and cultural crusaders feel comfortable sticking out their neck a bit more knowing that they have the Commander-in-Chief on their side. The movement could prove fatal, however: In an increasingly tolerant society, such a staunch, stubborn, and commitment may come at quite a great cost-much like it did for Jesus himself.
Patrick Gavin works in the Office of Communications at the Brookings Institution. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org