Of all the issues facing the two American presidential candidates — Iraq, the economy, health care, climate change, immigration — the one that is most crucial to the future of the United States doesn’t even rate a mention on the Washington Post’s Issues Tracker for election coverage, namely, the family.
There is no doubt at all that both Barack Obama and John McCain talk about families in their speeches — social security for families, health care for families, employment, education and many other things families need — but do they talk about “the family”? Do they think about it? Do they realise how important it is for the health and prosperity of America to support the domestic unit founded on marriage and open to the generation of children? Not so as you’d notice, unfortunately.
The United States is doing better than most Western nations when it comes to producing children, but the birth rate masks a disintegrating marriage culture that makes the future much less certain. By the time the last state has signed gay marriage into law, the troubles of the Iraq war may seem light by comparison with those of a generation who have no idea what marriage actually means.
Silence about the family is ominous in a political leader. British opposition leader David Cameron has realised this and came out last weekend with one of the strongest statements on the subject that an Anglo leader has made for some time. Addressing the “relationship-guidance” charity Relate (the type of organisation that used to be called “marriage guidance” before the nation became resigned to cohabitation) he said Britain would never solve any of its big social problems “if we don’t help the best institution in our country — the family — to do the vital work it does: bring up children. What that help is… will be among the defining social reforms of the Conservative government.”
Mr Cameron admitted that marriage was difficult territory for politicians — “Our relationships break down and fail just like other people’s, arguably more so” — but to make that an excuse for not addressing the issue of family breakdown was a “cop-out”. His own marriage (which has produced three children) appears quite secure, as does that of the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. But that is often not the case with leading politicians today and marital chaos certainly does undermine what they might have to say on the subject of families.
The outstanding example of that in Europe at present is the thrice-married President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, who seems to change wives as easily as he would his shirt, not waiting, however, to be quite off with the old before he is on with the new. In 2004 Mr Sarkozy published a book in which he argued for less secularism in the republic and a greater role for religious values in, say, the education of the young. It is difficult to tell from his personal life what effect he thinks this might have, least of all upon marriage and family life.
So much for the right wing of the political spectrum. What about the left? How about a female head of state, given that women are supposed to bring something special to politics, so long dominated by men? South of the United States border, very far south indeed, we find Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile, the first woman in Latin America to reach such a position in a direct election. She did so, however, as a single mother with a failed marriage and a couple of other relationships behind her. A doctor, she had already served as health minister, in which capacity she approved sales of the morning after pill. The nearest she got to championing the family was to push for more generous childcare subsidies, which are not necessarily a pro-family thing.
The Prime Minister of my country, New Zealand, is also a woman. It is common knowledge that Helen Clark only got around to marrying her partner of five years, Peter Davis, when she was running for parliament, and then only at the urging of her party (Labour). It is said that she cried throughout the ceremony, although she attributes that to a headache. She has been in parliament since 1981 and has been PM since 1999; Forbes magazine last year ranked her the 38th most powerful woman in the world.
Ms Clark could have done a lot for the family, and it is true that in recent years her government has given child tax credits to working parents. But, oh dear, she thinks girls should be able to get abortions without telling their mothers and she has presided over the legalisation of prostitution and a civil union law which puts same-sex partners and de facto couples on virtually the same footing as those who are married. You will not catch her calling the family “the best institution in our country” — at least, not without a great deal of ambiguity.
Coming back to America, the final phase of the presidential election presents us with two apparently happily married candidates — Barack Obama for the first time and John McCain for the second. In this respect Mr Obama, whose website says he is “especially proud of being a husband and father of two daughters”, has more credibility, but it seems unlikely he would use it to promote the family as such. He speaks of his “fight for working families” in the form of tax cuts and early childhood education, but he supports civil unions, opposes a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and defends the abortion regime ushered in by Roe v Wade.
Mr McCain, on the other hand, has a divorce behind him, and although his marriage to Cindy Lou Hensley in 1980 has lasted, it has some unusual features. She is 18 years younger than him, has a pre-nuptial agreement to preserve her family assets, and, according to one report, continues to live in Arizona while her husband is in Washington. By today’s standards, there is nothing damning in any of that, but it is not a profile that goes with a strong stand on family values.
The choice for American voters is, however, better than it might have been. The two main also-rans offered little inspiration in the family values department. Hillary Clinton can be commended for standing by her man when Bill showed himself a thoroughly delinquent husband, but one gets the impression that career concerns have been uppermost in her marriage, and she is too much in the family planning camp to understand the kind of policies that would really renew family life. As for Rudy Guiliani, the least said about his domestic relationships, the better.
Among the other original candidates there was some potential. But having good values is not enough to get you into the White House or the prime minister’s office. Whatever it takes, the world needs more of it.
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet.