Allow me to vent an old complaint. It’s something that I can’t get off my chest, although I have written about it many times. Every time I hear a politician utter the word “values,” I throw my shoe at the TV. I throw both shoes at the screen when I hear the term “family values.” It’s not that I personally am without moral beliefs. In fact the ones I hold would suggest that I’m a social reactionary. What I object to is empty rhetoric.
All politicians favor “values,” and when those on the social Left claim to stand for “family values,” as Obama has been doing, they have as much right to that term as anyone else. Indeed I can respect people I disagree with on just about everything, because they act on the basis of their beliefs.
Some of my Republican friends, who make fun of my attitude, ask me whether I really admire Obama as a person of principle. I respond by explaining that to whatever extent he acts on the basis of conviction, Obama deserves my respect. I wish I could say the same about Mitt Romney or other GOP presidential candidates who waffle every time they encounter liberal journalists or think that a hostile reporter may be eaves-dropping. Although I disagree with Ron Paul’s judgments about Iran, I have to recognize that Paul stands up for his constitutional principles. I find the same integrity in John Bolton, whom I have known for many years. Although I would not trust the war-happy Bolton anywhere near Foggy Bottom, let alone as Secretary of State, I’m sure he would never betray his conscience. For me that does count for something.
The users of the value-word are mostly hack Republicans, trying to avoid mine fields. Value-talk typically consists of phrases intended to reassure one’s base while revealing nothing that could get hurt the speaker. In the current presidential primaries several Republicans have departed from this script by telling us what they would do to oppose gay marriage and restrict abortions. I applaud this honesty, which for me is far less distasteful than hearing someone announce that he or she is the candidate of values. The only “value” that I find in such politicians is the priority of getting elected.
But standing for principle may not be enough. I also wish to hear from the advocates of traditional social positions how they intend to implement them. It seems that even those with whom I agree in principle have sometimes held questionable views about constitutional matters. It is state legislatures, not courts or federal bureaucrats, which should be dealing with abortion and gay marriage. Congresswoman Bachmann and former Senator Santorum both misstated this procedural matter during primary debates, although Santorum later corrected his mistake. All attempts at end-runs around state governments in order to have the feds decide social issues is not only constitutionally wrong but also dumb. Do social traditionalists honestly believe that the federal government is more likely to ride to their rescue than the state legislatures of our more conservative states? It is mostly the federal administration that has steered the country leftward throughout my life. I see no reason to believe this will change in the foreseeable future.
The beginning of the GOP’s value-noises coincided with two developments. One, after the resounding defeat of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, it became clear that any politician who suggested that he would substantially cut back the welfare state was destined to lose. This became particularly evident after Lyndon Johnson introduced extensive entitlement programs after his victory against Goldwater. Thereafter the GOP decided to run as the party that would protect a steadily expanding bundle of entitlements.
Two, the country veered politically and socially to the left with the civil rights and feminist revolutions. But some Americans thought these developments went too far and resented the role of unelected judges in bringing them about. The reaction against abortion rights and other consequences of a revolutionary epoch allowed the GOP to find a new lease on life. The GOP would be for “values” and in an even fuzzier way for “getting government off our backs.” But electoral interests trump these sound bites. Although presidential candidates are rhetorically for “trimming government waste,” Republican presidents fill the federal administration with their hangers-on—and even create new ones for the overload.
The same presidents have appointed federal judges who are less radical than their Democratic counterparts, but this has hardly changed the scope of judicial governance. Except for recent proposals by Newt Gingrich for Congress to oversee federal judges, Republican presidential contenders have called for nothing that would weaken the federal judiciary or limit its ability to shape social policy. Blasting activist courts in campaigning may be more profitable than trying to make the problem go away for social conservatives.