Traditional conservatives had grand hopes as the George W. Bush team rode into Washington. Unlike his father (alas, “Poppy” was puzzled by the little concerns of Middle Americans), the new president seemed able to speak their language without wincing and to understand their fears of moral and social decay. During his campaign, the younger Bush had reached out to Washington’s pro-family leadership, organized as the Arlington Group, and convinced them that they finally had a real seat at the table.
Eight years later, they know their place. On matters tangential to political life, where little was at risk, the Bush White House usually delivered. But when the interests of normal American families collided with military ambitions in the Middle East or with the claims of the Fortune 500, social conservatives were dismissedsometimes with contempt.
Early actions held promise. At the cabinet level, pro-family leaders applauded Bush’s choices of John Ashcroft as attorney general and Tommy Thompson to head the Department of Health and Human Services. Ashcroft had a solid pro-life and pro-family voting record during his Senate years. Wisconsin governor Thompson won praise for his welfare reforms, which cut sharply back on the welfare subsidies for unwed mothers and tried to encourage marriage.
The new administration also placed good people in important second-level posts. Bush named Dr. Wade Horn to the key position of HHS’s assistant secretary for children and families, the federal agency most deeply engaged in family policy. As a veteran of the elder Bush’s administration, Horn had emerged as a reliable conservative through service on the National Commission on Children and, during the Clinton years, as president of the National Fatherhood Initiative. Bush also named former Maryland legislator Ellen Sauerbrey as U.S. delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, where she took on the über-feminists swarming through the UN’s Secretariat.
One personnel disappointment, which carried an ominous message, came at the Pentagon. Retiring Indiana senator Dan Coats, who had a solid pro-family voting record and a keen grasp of social issues, was a finalist for the secretary of defense post. During an interview, though, he reported that he would seek to reverse Clinton-era policies that had opened numerous near-combat military specialties to women. This reportedly struck a nerve in Bush’s inner circle. They opted instead for Don Rumsfeld, who cast the role of women in the military as a mere “management” issue.
All the same, the first Bush term delivered on a number of policy fronts. The 2001 tax cut included an increase in the relatively new Child Tax Credit to $1,000 per child, as had been recommended by the National Commission on Children, a boon to larger families. The administration successfully implemented another commission recommendation: increased funding for abstinence-education initiatives, toward parity with the Title X birth-control program. Over at HHS, they launched promising fatherhood and marriage initiatives intended to strengthen traditional families. The administration created a high-profile President’s Council on Bioethics. Headed by the estimable Leon Kass, the council’s products included an unusual (and unusually good) volume on the dignity of life, Being Human.
On the international front, the Bush administration effectively shut down family policymaking at the United Nations. During the Clinton years, much mischief had occurred at international sessions in Cairo, Beijing, Istanbul, and Copenhagen. First Lady Hillary Clinton, as she repeatedly noted during her presidential run this year, actually led the American delegation to the Beijing session on women’s rights, where the real issues were legalizing abortion, expanding state daycare, and normalizing lesbianism. The Clintons were also eager to win ratification of sweeping UN treaties regarding the rights of women and children, both of which would involve a surrender of American legal sovereignty.
The Bush team at the UN brought all this to a screeching halt. American obstructionism drove internationalist apparatchiks into sullen rages; they turned from grand initiatives toward less dangerous troublemaking at the technical level.
Domestically, as homosexual groups pressed for same-sex marriage, President Bush reiterated his support for the Defense of Marriage Act. When pro-family groups rallied around a proposed Federal Marriage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the president gave it his blessing.
Even before the end of his first term, however, there were signs of trouble. Trying to find a middle way that would placate social liberals, the White House backed federal funding for certain forms of stem-cell research. Most pro-life and pro-family groups favored a total ban. Meanwhile, HHS projects to promote marriage and fatherhood were moving instead toward a punishing noncustodial fathers, pleasing feminists, and creating perverse incentives for divorce.
After “values voters” won credit for re-electing Bush in 2004, pro-family leaders made judges their top priority. Here again, the president stumbled, initially nominating Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, though his subsequent choices of John Roberts and Samuel Alito won hosannas from social conservatives.
Pro-family leaders might have accomplished more had they adopted a more strategic approach. In 2005, however, they spent vast amounts of political capital in a frenzied effort to save Terri Schiavo. Special congressional late-night sessions, emergency bills, the attempted federalization of a state issue, and midnight presidential signaturesany special interest, even one riding high, can only call on these once per election cycle. Not only did the effort to save Schiavo fail, but the oddities of the campaign marked the beginning of the end for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s presidential aspirations. The controversy probably contributed to the fall of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and may have been a factor in the Republicans losing Congress in 2006. All the same, whatever the broader wisdom, Bush did here what pro-family groups in Washington asked him to do.
At another level, though, the Bush team sacrificed the prospect of greater pro-family initiativeslike so much elseto the war in Iraq. Most disturbingly, the Defense Department relentlessly manipulated, and at times simply ignored, laws that limited exposure of women to combat. Desperate to fill its ranks, the Army ignored the lessons of all human history and put womenincluding young mothersat risk, a shameful blot on the American record. Hundreds have been killed and many more severely wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands have spent months, if not years, separated from their families.
The administration’s deliberate twisting of gender roles was on gruesome display in the case of Jessica Lynch, in which Pentagon propagandists blatantly lied about her capture in the early days of the Iraq War, turning a frightened victim of Iraqi sexual abuse into a female version of Sergeant York. Private Lynndie England’s infamous exploits in the Abu Ghraib prison were another sign of the Pentagon’s direct complicity in the feminist-inspired degradation of American women.
In pursuit of its military agenda, the Bush administration achieved another landmark of gender-role engineering. Its deployment of women into combat made sure, given prior court decisions, that if the nation must someday return to a draft, the daughters of American families will join their brothers in involuntary military service.
The Bush White House also held family tax relief hostage to other agendas. The Child Tax Credit is the one component of the 2001 Bush tax cut that has enjoyed strong support on the Democratic side, yet it is scheduled to expire in 2010. On any given day, a strong congressional majority could have been won for making this provision permanent, yet the White House insisted on keeping it tied to tax breaks for Big Business. The consequence? American families lost once again.
The Bush administration also refused to embrace a broader package of pro-family economic initiatives. The proposed Parents’ Tax Relief Act, sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback and Rep. Lee Terry, would make the Child Tax Credit permanent and indexed to inflation, double the personal income tax exemption for children, give parents at home a tax benefit equal to that given to daycare users, encourage home-based businesses, and treat full-time parenting as real work relative to Social Security credits. The bill has enjoyed broad support from pro-family groups, small business associations, and home-based entrepreneurs. But the Bush domestic policy team turned up its collective nose, insisting that any new tax relief should go to corporate America, not parents and children or even family businesses.
On family questions, then, the Bush legacy is mixed. Initial personnel decisions, social policy at the UN, the selection of judges, and early policy initiatives at HHS draw high marks. But whenever natural family values went up against the war in Iraq, the manpower needs of the Pentagon, corporate interests, or even political expediency, there was no contest: families were ignored.
Allan Carlson is president of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society in Rockford, Illinois and international secretary of the World Congress of Families. His books include Conjugal America: On the Public Purposes of Marriage (Transaction).