Silver his tongue is not, but George W. Bush can sweet-talk when he wants to. “Across America, no doubt about it, single mothers do heroic work. They have the toughest job in our country,” he has sympathized. “We should not be afraid to promote families,” he recently said, urging Congress to earmark $300 million for experiments in getting women to marry out of poverty as it revises the landmark 1996 welfare reform act over the next couple of months. But where honey oozes, there can be flies.
The buzz around the president’s marriage proposal has virtually drowned out public debate over other, decidedly unromantic—some say cruel—provisions of his $17 billion-a-year welfare plan, like the significant increase in work requirements absent any increase in child care. But while wonks worry over the propriety and merits of government matchmaking, the schemers trade high fives like frat boys. Whether or not marriage promotion can actually solve poverty, the family values crowd is already scoring, in political points.
“You’ve got a small group of people who are in favor [of the proposal] and a large group of people who are afraid of going against it,” says one senior Senate aide too terrified to be identified even by party. By invoking wholesome tradition, conservatives are not only dominating the welfare debate, they are gaining election-year ground. “They’ve been very smart about it, making it seem very benign on the surface,” the staffer says, suggesting that no one will risk appearing “anti-family” to oppose $300 million—pocket change in the capital.
The chief architect of Bush’s plan has hardly denied political motives. Right-wing think tanker Robert Rector has said, in fact, “poverty should not be the principal concern” of policy about the poor. Last year, he laid out an eight-point blueprint for Bush, titled “Implementing Welfare Reform and Restoring Marriage.” Such is the influence of Rector’s Heritage Foundation—a policy petri dish for the likes of Newt Gingrich, Ronald Reagan, and John Ashcroft—that the administration has followed his plan nearly to the letter. Rector, who derides “the underclass” as criminal, oversexed, and lazy, makes a feint at remedying such “dysfunctional behavior.” But he is much more a spin doctor than a social scientist.
“Use the bully pulpit on key issues, especially marriage,” his guide advises. “Use . . . minority groups, to reinforce the message. Ideal examples are poor black parents . . . and former welfare mothers.” He who does so shall conquer: “Few politicians will show open hostility to the idea of strengthening marriage. It should not be difficult to publicly co-opt prominent Members of both parties.”
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, recently called the presidential marriage proposal one of the right’s greatest hopes for widening its congressional lead this fall. “The Republican base is very much zeroed in on the pro-family . . . part,” he told The Washington Times, a reactionary rag. “It is big.” Contributor Stanley Kurtz gushed about marriage promotion in the National Review, “We’re talking about a fundamental change, in which conservatives . . . don’t simply oppose government spending, but actually take money away from the Left and put it to their own good use. . . . The presidency is our route back into the cultural mainstream . . . our ultimate end-run around the Left-leaning powers that be.”
The spokesmen for this “healthy families” campaign are not cheerful divorcé Mike Bloomberg or even George Pataki, the sort of Republicans found in these parts. (Although as hosts to the nation’s largest and some say harshest workfare program, their positions on federal policy matter a lot.) Instead, cheerleaders include Wade Horn, second in command at the federal welfare agency, who founded a center to market fatherhood and until recently maintained the unorthodox view that the married should have first dibs on public housing.
Evangelist Pat Robertson has publicized the Bush marriage effort on his much-visited Web site, next to an ad for Pat’s Age-Defying Antioxidants. (Aren’t wrinkles part of His plan?) Jim Backlin, director of legal affairs for the Christian Coalition—the nation’s wealthiest ideological lobbying outfit—calls the president’s proposal “very outstanding.” He told the Voice the Coalition would be leaning on Congress and sending mailings to some 2 million Americans to back up Bush.
How long will those recent survey results, showing nearly 80 percent of the country opposing government’s messing with marriage, last? “They’re pretty silly, those poll numbers,” says Rector. “I will find some money, and we will do a poll and show the opposite.” What he goes on to describe amounts to push-polling, the dirty but effective campaign tool in which operatives quiz voters with leading questions about the opposition and come up with numbers—and votes—in their guy’s favor. “How you phrase these things is all-important,” says Rector.
Indeed. For if not for the down-home rhetoric, the conservatives might be seen not just for their politicking but for their profiteering. Says José Quiñones, policy director of the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, “What organizations are going to apply to promote marriage—your average nonprofit down the street? Some state agency? No—it’s going to be churches.” Indeed, Backlin of the Christian Coalition says it “would be our preference” that the administration contract Coalition affiliates.
It doesn’t take a complete cynic to sniff out the money trail. From defense spending to tax breaks for charity, Bush’s Christian crusade has also been a mercenary mission. “We ought not allow the federal government to discriminate, when it comes to the distribution of federal money, against faith-based grassroots programs,” the president has said. And, “faith-based initiatives is [sic] an integral part of the next step of welfare reform.”
But in fact, religious organizations such as Lutheran Services in America and Catholic Charities U.S.A. have collected public funding for years. And Congress recently granted such institutions privileges denied their secular counterparts, permitting them to discriminate in hiring based on religion and exempting them from certain licensing and training requirements.
That $300 million in marriage money could merely whet appetites for a faith-based feeding frenzy. The Bush welfare plan proposes “super waivers” to allow states to spend monies meant for child care and job training with unprecedented flexibility. It’s a macro version of a quiet federal initiative uncovered in late March, in which a few states were to be encouraged to seek waivers on child support rules and spend that money on marriage promotion.
The more Rector speaks, the less it seems anyone really intends marriage experimentation to solve poverty. He’s already covering: “You usually start out with failure,” he tells the Voice. “That’s the nature of public policy.”(That ill-fated $300 million could do more concrete good, say anti-poverty advocates, for instance as child care funding for working mothers.)
But “common sense and truth only get you so far in Congress,” says the Senate aide. “It’s gotten to the point where even the most progressive legislators have to offer some position on family formation.” The Democratic leadership doth protest not much. Charles Rangel, Harlem resident and ranking member of the House committee that drafts welfare legislation, says, “Promoting healthy marriages is important, but the best way to do that is to find a way to get decent, permanent jobs for the people in marriages.” And from New York’s distinguished senators? Nada. The only outspoken critics, NOW feminists—90 percent of adult welfare recipients are women—have of course been labeled hostile and worse.
The void is felt. Says Rector, “I’m still waiting for a valid argument on the other side.” Bush admitted at a February news conference previewing his welfare plan, “I sometimes get encapsulated in a bubble. It is important for me to, as often as I can, to [sic] hear the true stories of America.” In other words, speak now, or forever hold your peace.