Trading Family Values

How the old conservative/liberal stereotypes break down when it comes to parenting.

Dads say the darnedest things about their kids during presidential debates. “I’m trying to put a leash on them,” President Bush joked in a rare light moment during the first debate. “Well, I don’t know. I’ve learned not to do that, Mr. President,” Kerry responded with a smile, basking in the compliment the president had bestowed a few moments earlier. (“I admire the fact that he is a great dad,” Bush had told Jim Lehrer.) The final debate ended with another round of mutual flattery about the candidates’ good-guy parenting (on display in their Dr. Phil appearances, too). No old-style fathers here: That was the unmistakable message. With the exception of the Mary Cheney flap, we have been treated to the unusual spectacle of Red-Blue convergence on the classically divisive issue of family values.

But look again at the dads and listen to the kids who are everywhere on the campaign trail, and an even odder development stands out. The parties show signs of having flip-flopped on a parenting debate that dates back to 1968, when Nixon deplored the “fog of permissiveness” that he felt had engulfed the country. Then it was conservatives who complained that unruly youths had been “Spocked when they should have been spanked”; in the 1980s and 1990s, dare-to-discipline crusaders like Focus on the Family’s James Dobson pursued the antipermissive theme as the culture war heated up. These days, though, it’s Democrats who come across as no-nonsense parental taskmasters, certainly compared to their Republican opponents.

By now, the Bush dynasty is famous for its failure to impose a tight-leash parenting policy. However you judge the particular youthful exploits of either W. or his twins, they don’t add up to an advertisement for the character education and abstinence-training that conservative child-rearing experts like Dobson have trumpeted in “the battle for the hearts and minds of our kids” (the subtitle of his and Gary Bauer’s 1990 manifesto, Children at Risk). By contrast, the Kerry-Edwards entourage is positively straitlaced. Their family tableau telegraphs hard-working, public-spirited wholesomeness—even wonkiness.

The super-conscientious tradition, in fact, can be traced back to their Democratic antecedents, from the high-achieving Chelsea Clinton on through the golden Gore girls, to homely Amy Carter (who worried about nuclear proliferation, remember?). The parents have been no slouches, either. Who would have thought pop-culture policewoman Tipper could be topped? When Theresa Heinz claims she “was a witch with my children”—requiring written reports on the snippets of television she let them watch, for example—you can readily believe she ran a strict, Old World household. She’s the woman who yanked Jack Edwards’ thumb out of his mouth, after all. Dr. Spock would have spanked her.

It’s obvious why the Democrats are eager to play up the tough-love aura. They hope it will appeal to the family-values crowd and help counter the party’s “soft” image. But the hard-driving display isn’t simply spin at work. These liberal parents—even the libidinal Bill Clinton—are all too credible as goody-goody exemplars of the get-ahead grind’s approach, beginning early in life: They’re moms and dads who can plausibly preach do-as-I-did to their kids and who aren’t about to let them slack off. Watch clips of Kerry as a pompous young striver—famously unpopular with his peers—on the recent Frontline program “The Choice 2004,” and you’ll be convinced that Vanessa Kerry isn’t faking when she describes a dad on her case, monitoring homework and keeping close tabs on the partying. If he ever really learned a no-leash approach, it was late in the game.

What’s somewhat more mysterious is the absence of Republican chagrin at their side’s failure to live up to the industrious competition. It’s clear, of course, that Bush is eager to humanize his “hard” profile. He evidently figures it doesn’t hurt to be the laid-back dad, especially since that lets him avoid the awkward don’t-do-as-I-did stance that nearly tripped him up in the last election. (When a hidden drunken-driving arrest surfaced from his dissolute past, his excuse was that he’d wanted to shield his daughters.) It’s also little wonder that he lets his girls loose in their designer clothes to gab about MTV and The O.C. They’re plainly being deployed to promote the notion that being a young Republican isn’t dorky.

Still, you might expect a hint of defensiveness, given the Christian fundamentalist followers whom Bush is said to care so much about pleasing. But there’s a reason the campaign goes ahead and flaunts the “when we were young and irresponsible, we were young and irresponsible” ethos that the twins displayed at the convention: It has the anti-elitist appeal the party assumes its Red state base thrives on. Filtered through a populist prism, such an attitude needn’t suggest decadence; it can convey a spirit of down-home, defiant independence. After all, studiousness and parental pushiness, however virtuous, are also part of the pointy-headed approach to life. To snub TV is snobby, and adult hypervigilance can look like a lot like elitist cosseting. You can see the cultural contradictions of populism at work: Hit the books is not presumed to be what Joe Six-Pack wants to hear.

You know the winds have changed when the obstreperous Bill O’Reilly gets up on a conservative parenting soapbox that once emphasized a mind-your-manners-and-act-mature message. In his brand-new O’Reilly Factor for Kids, aimed at middle-schoolers and teens, the conservative icon adopts an I’m-your-pal style, and a don’t-do-the-dumb-stuff-I-did tack—only to find himself in just the mess his own savvy advice is supposed to prevent. (“Guys, if you exploit a girl, it will come back to get you. That’s called ‘karma.’ “) He’s not a preacherly Dr. Dobson type, that’s for sure. If O’Reilly has a model, it’s John Rosemond, the upstart right-wing author of Because I Said So and other popular parenting books, who likes to bill himself as a “loose cannon.”

Rosemond comes right out and says that “conservatives believe that where government is concerned, the less, the better. The same applies to the governing of children.” By this, he means parents should do less micromanaging and let kids learn from their mistakes—as he presumes they will, pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. (He boasts of overcoming the “pot-addled excesses” of his youth.) But Bush’s own record on that score is less than inspiring, and his daughters can probably count on getting bailed out, just as he was. Their special no-consequences dispensation is not part of the official populist parenting message, of course. It should, though, get wider airing in Red states where incomes and education levels lag. Hard-driving parents and kids in the well-educated, Blue state elite are easy to mock, but they’re onto an important secret: The luxury of screwing up and still coming out on top isn’t something regular Americans can count on.