Friday, September 07, 2012

Family Values and Valuing Families: The 2012 Democratic Party Platform and the Long Reach of Clintonism

Linda McClain

The Republican and Democratic party conventions are over. Commentators are turning from evaluating the stirring and not-so-stirring convention speeches to assessing any lingering effects of the conventions and predicting campaign themes and strategies. The party platforms provide another venue for assessing the basic choice voters face in November between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The 2012 Democratic National Platform, Moving America Forward, intones that the election is about "two fundamentally different paths for our country and our families." Vice President Joe Biden, in his convention speech yesterday evening, declared that the choice was between two "fundamental different visions" and "completely different" value sets.

What about family values? The 2012 Democratic Platform opens its section on "Families" thus: "It’s time we stop just talking about family values and start pursuing policies that truly value families." This catchy prescription indicates the lasting impact of Clintonism and the pioneering ideas of the Democratic Leadership Council that propelled Bill Clinton and Al Gore to victory in 1992 with a "New Covenant" pairing responsibility and opportunity. Clinton and Gore argued, in their campaign book, Putting People First: "Republicans have lectured America on the importance of family values. But their policies have made life harder for working families. . . A Clinton-Gore Administration will demand more from families, but it will offer more, too."

Clintonism used other powerful tropes: public policy should reward, not punish, people who "work hard and play by the rules;" "no American with a family who works full time" should be "forced to raise children in poverty"; and workers should not be "forced . . .to choose between the jobs they need and the families they love." The 2012 Platform echoes these basic themes, emphasizing the value of fairness: "American works when everyone plays by the same rules." The preamble states that the challenge of "reclaiming the economic security of the middle class" requires "restoring the basic values that made our country great, and restoring for everyone who works hard and plays by the rules the opportunity to find a job that pays the bills, turn an idea into a profitable business, care for your family, afford a home you can call your own and health care you can count on, retire with dignity and respect, and . . . give your children the kind of education that allows them to dream even bigger and go even further than you ever imagined."

The 1992 Platform sounded stern themes of personal responsibility:"People who bring children into this world have a responsibility to care for them and give them values, motivation, and discipline" Further, "Children should not have children." The Platform called for a "national crackdown on deadbeat parents," a "systematic effort to establish paternity for every child," and enhanced child support enforcement efforts. On the opportunity side, the Platform called for, among other things, enacting the Family and Medical Leave Act, affordable, high quality child care, and affordable health care. Famously, candidate Clinton pledged to "end welfare as we know it;" the 1992 Platform promised a "new social contract" of moving people from welfare to work by providing opportunity while demanding responsibility.

How do family values translate into family policy – valuing families – in the 2012 Platform? Nearly every domestic policy articulated in the lengthy Platform refers to helping families, be it "Putting Americans Back to Work," expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act, education policies, initiatives on obesity and public health, or – a key theme at the Convention – supporting military families. Moreover, the Platform notes the Administration’s efforts to afford opportunity to fathers attempted to take personal responsibility. And both the 1992 and 2012 platforms affirmed "a woman’s right to choose."

Probably the most dramatic difference between family values circa 1992 and 2012 is the 2012 Platform’s robust embrace of marriage equality for same-sex couples: "We support the right of all families to have equal respect, responsibilities, and protections under the law." The 1992 Platform vowed to fight discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, although Clinton subsequently signed the controversial Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, on the eve of re-election and in the wake of fear of marriage tourism to Hawaii. The 2012 Platform opposes state and federal constitutional amendments attempting "to deny equal protection of the laws to committed same-sex couples who seek the same respect and responsibilities as other married couples" and calls for DOMA’s repeal. Indicative of the evolution of the Democratic Party on this issue, Bill Clinton himself supports these developments, anchoring them in the familiar tropes of Clintonism. Last year, in support of New York’s marriage law, he related marriage equality to "our nation’s permanent mission to form a ‘more perfect union’ – deepening the meaning of freedom, broadening the reach of opportunity, strengthening the bonds of community." So took, at the 2012 convention, speakers wove the freedom to marry the person you love into that the nation’s realization of a "more perfect union."

In my next post, I will consider family values and family policy in the 2012 Republican Platform.

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