The Pander Countdown to Election Day 2004 has begun in earnest. President Bush spiced up his recent State of the Union speech by tossing a bone to his conservative base -- if not a garter belt and a Bible. Those Republican loyalists are up in arms over the thought that gay people may soon have the legal right to tie and untie the knot -- and thus make a mockery of the sacred institution that Britney is such a big fan of. Bush tiptoed up to the edge of saying "I do" to supporting a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the exclusive province of heterosexual couples.
"Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage," he declared to ringing applause from Tom DeLay and the "Amen" chorus on the right.
The president's connubial rhetoric came on the heels of last month's White House announcement of the "Healthy Marriage" initiative, aka "The Leave No Bride Behind Act." The president plans to spend $1.5 billion protecting and promoting marriage, especially among poor, minority couples.
The money will be used to teach couples how to manage their conflicts in healthy ways, and, yes, to fund ad campaigns publicizing the value of getting hitched. I can just picture the PSAs starring Trista and Ryan: "Hey, kids, we were paid millions of dollars to tie the knot on national TV. So don't believe anyone who tells you that marriage isn't worth the trouble!" Federal dollars will also be earmarked for mentoring programs that use married couples as role models. Here's a suggestion: Why not start with conservative icons such as Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich and Phil Gramm. They can all tearfully testify how much those ads might have meant in their own unsuccessful attempts to keep a marriage together.
Now, I'm not saying that helping married couples stay together is a bad thing. I'm just saying that it's not a job for the federal government. At least not a government that is faced with far more pressing problems than what to do when he wants to watch football and she wants to cuddle. We have heavy unemployment, 12 million uninsured children, record-breaking $500 billion deficits, unfinished business in Afghanistan and Iraq, porous ports and vulnerable airports, and every state in the union cutting back on vital social programs -- and the president wants to spend precious resources convincing young people that marriage is better than shacking up?
"Marriage programs do work," insisted Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families of the Department of Health and Human Services. "On average, children raised by their own parents in healthy, stable married families enjoy better physical and mental health and are less likely to be poor." Yeah, well, so are children who can read. And those raised by parents who have a job. And health insurance. And access to a decent education.
What makes the president's proposal particularly galling is that it's being offered up by a politician who came into office attacking federal programs like the one he is proposing for being too intrusive. "I trust people," said candidate Bush during one of his debates with Al Gore. "I don't trust the federal government."
Indeed, the very people who have been complaining for decades that government programs are not the way to fight the war on poverty are now determined to use federal tax dollars to fight the war for matrimonial bliss. And they're using the same line of argument they excoriate liberals for using to explain why we need to invest in education, healthcare and poverty fighting: "For every $1,000 we spend on public programs addressing family breakdown," said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, "we only spend one dollar trying to prevent that breakdown in the first place. The president's initiative puts the emphasis in the right place -- prevention."
Of course, these "family values" types, who insist that "marriage is between a man and a woman," uniformly fail to mention that, these days, marriage in America is, quite often, between a man who works eight hours a day in a factory and five hours a night as a security guard and then comes home to an empty bed because his wife is on the night shift, stocking shelves at Wal-Mart. It's pretty damn hard to "manage your conflicts in a healthy way" when the two of you are never in the same room. And for all the talk about how much better off kids in unbroken homes are, there is very little said about how these barely-making-ends-meet parents are supposed to pull off the Ozzie and Harriet routine. Talk to your kids about drugs? When? While you're waiting at the emergency room, which you're using as your general physician because you haven't got healthcare?
If you could distill the Bush administration down to a single thing, it would be this: a complete inability -- indeed a pathological aversion -- to changing course, even when the current course is taking us over a cliff.
After seeing the young Bruce Springsteen in concert, rock critic Jon Landau famously wrote: "I have seen the future of rock 'n' roll, and its name is Bruce Springsteen."
Well, I've just had a Springsteen moment. After spending some