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May 19, 2007

Family Issues Aren't Primary

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

People make a lot out of the fact that many GOP presidential hopefuls have had divorces and otherwise messy marital histories, but I can't see this being a huge factor in keeping anybody from getting the nomination.  The target audience for attacks on someone's marital history usually isn't primary-voting party activists, whose ideological commitments run too deep for biography to easily sway them.  Tell them about pedophilia or an illegitimate black child, and you'll do real damage, but mere divorce is far from a deal-breaker.

The target audience for that sort of thing is swing voters, whose ideological commitments aren't deep enough to tie them to one party or another, and who like their political information on the People Magazine level anyway.  They can be won over by giving flattering or unflattering biographical pictures of candidates, and the Republicans have enough religion hustlers to do that work well.  To put this in the coarsest terms, Republican concern for 'family values' in terms of a candidate's personal relations is a sham, and there's no reason to expect that it'll play a big role in their nomination process.  But in a general election, the cost of being a serial divorcer  -- or worse, a serial divorcer of ailing women -- comes due.  (Especially if your opponent is being a caring husband to his cancer-stricken wife.)

May 19, 2007 | Permalink


But in a general election, the cost of being a serial divorcer -- or worse, a serial divorcer of ailing women -- comes due.

I don't know why that would be true. It's not clear to me that "family values" means anything of import to anyone. My suspicion is that it means less to the unaffiliated than to partisans.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | May 19, 2007 5:00:26 PM

And it's not just divorce that comes due. Extramarital sex comes due, too. Hillary Clinton is going to have a tough time getting out from under the shadow of her husband's indiscretions. Another reason to go for Obama or Edwards.

Posted by: Media Glutton | May 19, 2007 5:05:45 PM

"but mere divorce is far from a deal-breaker." still perceived that way though. exhibit a: russ feingold.

Posted by: yep | May 19, 2007 5:33:28 PM

I couldn't agree more.


Posted by: aimai | May 19, 2007 5:44:54 PM

Neil, I think it's natural for us, as Democrats to say that "divorces don't matter" or that "family values is a sham" - I think that's why we're not Republicans. I think the fact that Ronald Reagan, a divorced man with a blended family, is still considered such a Republican hero, also blurs the lines. But it's a mistake to say that Newt's history, Giuliani's history, McCain's history - their personal, marital histories - don't play into their primary chances. It's clear religious conservatives have been willing, in the past, to accept half a loaf for future priomises later. The failure of GW Bush to make a lot of headway on their issues has made that less acceptable as a solution, and it's putting added scrutiny on divorces, affairs, and in Romney's case, his Mormonism.

It's possible that some Republicans - less socially conservative, less interested in the "family values" issues - will be able to prevail in picking one of the divorcees or Romney, on the grounds that "this is about terror/Iraq, not their marriages/rligious beliefs." But that has consequences, and the consequences will be that a lot of "family values" issues won't play coming from a Gingrich or Giuliani (and in those two men, it's likely you won't even see them try), and some deeply conservative people will be turned off and will stay home. Do the salacious details - Newt at his wife's sickbed, Donna Hanover getting her divorce announcement by press conference - have a shelf life? Sure. Scandal sells papers. But socially liberal folks - and we are, after all, the larger number - don't base decisions on this turf. It's hard for us to see why any of this matters - marriages fail, people get divorced, it's sad, but understandable. To the people for whom it does matter, though, compromising on a Newt or a Rudy - or even a McCain - is a big deal. As it should be, when someone is serious about taking marriage vows seriously.

Posted by: weboy | May 19, 2007 5:44:58 PM

I believe that what "family values" means to these guys is that people should have as many families as possible.

Posted by: craigie | May 19, 2007 7:09:40 PM

As it should be, when someone is serious about taking marriage vows seriously.

Where this should make them vulnerable isn't on the morality of it, but the hypocrisy. Among the GOP hopefuls, there are 10 or 11 divorces. Among the Democratic front-runners, there are zero. So tell me again which is the party that cares about families?

That's the way this stuff should spin.

Posted by: craigie | May 19, 2007 7:12:13 PM

Their tapping into a kind of schadenfreude,that is just so common within the suburbs/middle class.
Most people who vote on a regular basis are the middle class,who live their lives in a kind of bubble.
Their lives change very little or not at all regardless of whether the Republicans or Democrats get in.
So they make decisions about who to vote for depending on what ever middle class "outrage" happens to be on their minds.Usually some thing that has no affect on their lives one way or the other.
The other 40-45% that should vote but don't due to apathy or what ever.Are also the ones that seem to understand just how empty main stream politics really is.
It's all about perception,no substance.
At least thats how it seems to me...

Posted by: dirk | May 19, 2007 7:25:21 PM

they make decisions about who to vote for depending on what ever middle class "outrage" happens to be on their minds.Usually some thing that has no affect on their lives one way or the other.

I disagree with this. Oh, I'll agree that middle class "outrage" is what a lot of the swing voters you're describing vote with, but I don't agree that it is something that has "no effect on their lives". I think that's true when times are good, but not when people's lives are actually getting impacted.

When times are good, the trivial becomes important. When you don't have to worry about your job, your house payments, your car payments, and other money issues, there's more space to worry about stupid shit like which candidate is going to be the bigger moral scold or which candidate is the one you'd rather go "have a beer with".

In 2004 the GOPers mined these votes fairly well by playing the "terra.. Terra... TERRA!" card over and over again. Times were bad, and the GOPers made the case that they were bad because of terrorism. Dems could make a lot of inroads with those middle class voters -- the low-on-the-totem-pole white collar professionals -- by playing the "Outsourcing" card like there's no tomorrow. I don't have a single friend that I graduated college with who doesn't have the "my job could be outsourced to India" sword hanging over his or her head right now, despite all of us being a decade out of college, some of us with advanced degrees. Most of us are far more afraid of losing our jobs than a terrorist attack.

Posted by: NonyNony | May 19, 2007 8:30:31 PM

I'd like to believe that a history of treating one's spouses like shit should matter in voters' assessments. An even-handed media environment would help with that. Since we don't have anything like that, I see no reason to believe it'll hurt Republicans or help Democrats more this time than the last few times.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh | May 19, 2007 9:30:14 PM

"Family values" is a code word for male dominance. There's nothing about serial divorce that undermines male dominance, so long as the divorces are initiated by the man and/or are the result of serial infidelities. Which describes the divorces in question here.

The rumors that Bush paid for an ex-girlfriend's abortion didn't hurt him, either. It's because abortion is not the issue, but women's rights are. The alleged abortion happened when it was illegal, and was only available because the Bush family has money and connections. As the woman in question was at male mercy to get the abortion, it doesn't threaten anti-choicers.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | May 20, 2007 12:53:12 AM

I think Neil's key insight is that the voters of the primary are not the same as the voters in the general, even the voters the Republican relies on in the general.

For instance I think Giuliani will get a lot of support within Republicans, enough to win maybe, but some Republicans will always hate him for his many obvious apostasies. Say 20-25%. Not being able to rely on the entire Republican base is going to hurt a lot more in the general than in the majority-wins primary.

Posted by: Tony V | May 20, 2007 1:38:46 AM

Amanda said:""Family values" is a code word for male dominance."
I guess that would depend on who is saying it,and what they actually mean.
A case can be made that families are impacted in negative ways,when both parents have to work.
But many Republicans do tend to blame the women for this perceived "crisis" of the "Traditional" family.And many dream of the "good old days" when it was a "man's world",with none of the ambiguities of the present.

Posted by: dirk | May 20, 2007 2:21:28 AM

Amanda, I mostly agree, and I think it'll mitigate the effect of the divorce stuff within the GOP primary dynamic. But with ideologically uncommitted married female swing voters in a general election, it has to have some impact, right? Won't mistreatment of one's wife hit a little too close to home for married women?

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | May 20, 2007 3:31:05 AM

I'm not sure that most people reading / commenting on this blog have a good idea about what makes hard core social conservatives tick. I think that it is probably easier to predict voters' behavior when you can at least sort of see things from their perspective. I don't have much sympathy for this political perspective or too much experience interacting with "values voters" and therefore find it somewhat difficult to analyze the behavior of such voters. The same probably goes for a lot of other younger, more educated, socially liberal types. So I wouldn't be so quick to discount the impact of Giuliani's personal history once voters are "educated" about it. It also should be noted that it's not just the divorces - it is also the dress wearing and the moving in with a gay couple. The is lots about Guiliani that could be problematic either in the Republican primary or in the general election. This should make the Republican primary fun to watch if nothing else. At least for those of us who don't much care for Guiliani or the other folks in the race.

Posted by: ikl | May 20, 2007 4:10:51 AM

Amanda, your analysis is ridiculous from start to finish. Amazing that anyone takes that stuff seriously.

Posted by: Sanpete | May 20, 2007 5:26:34 AM

Well, I agree with amanda and I don't think her analysis is ridiculous at all. But I also agree with ikl, for the following reason. There are a lot of voters who are low information voters and a lot of voters who vote on vaguely sympathetic terms such as "family values" and as long as no one challenges what those terms means they think they are in agreement with their party. There is, and always has been, a difference between the cynical manipulation of people's beliefs by their party and the actual beliefs of the party base. To mymind, examining the evidence provided by the fallout from various Republican scandals like Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart, the money laundering of the other reverends, etc...etc...etc... there is no question that the elite conservative power brokers use the term "family values" as a cover for patriarchy. Look at Henry Hyde (mr. "youthful indiscretion" pillorying Clinton). ON a more sickening note just look at the classic republican Ted Klaudt for a guy who pushed a hard line on "conservative" interference with the family as long as the only people who were punished were women and children while reserving to himself the right to sexually abuse his own foster children.

But these ideas escape the boundaries of their creators very easily. Years ago Dorinne Kondo wrote a pretty good book called "crafting selves" about the manipulation of the concept of "family" as in we are all "one big family" in small japanese manufacturing firms. She showed tha the bosses used the term/concept "family" to try to control the workers and squeeze more work for less pay from them while the workers used the same term, with a different valence, to try to squeeze more money and consideration out of the bosses for less work.

So I think there is a significant bloc of "values voters" who have their own idea of what values mean to them, and their own (to my mind erroneous) view of how those values are connected to real people's lives. I don't think that rudi's scandalous abuse of his second wife and his children, or newt's serial divorce of ill women, etc....will play well with them. I think they can be fooled by a "nice guy" like romney (who, in any event, has bush's sterling sexual morality to help him get over) but I don't think rudy's demeanor, or newt's, will enable them to pull off flying directly in the face of every hypocritical republican rant in the last eighteen years.

Posted by: aimai | May 20, 2007 8:10:00 AM

I should add that I know a lot of "values voters" and talk to them very regularly. They are actually all around us.


Posted by: aimai | May 20, 2007 8:11:07 AM

Amanda said:""Family values" is a code word for male dominance."
I guess that would depend on who is saying it,and what they actually mean.

She always says that. Take any phrase and she will say it's code words for 'male dominance' or 'The Patriarchy'. I understand you're new here, but after a while you will come to understand that Amanda is a one trick pony and that trick is "MEN SUCK".

Posted by: Fred Jones | May 20, 2007 8:44:14 AM

Wrong, fred, people who write about, or recognize the existence of, patriarchal trends, systems, or laws don't think "men suck" they think that some aspects of our modern legal and socio-political system are set up to advantage some (alpha) males and that many, if not all, men suffer from those laws and customs as much as many if not all women. Looking at the totality of your posts over the last few years I'd put you squarely in the "beta male" camp, by the way. You write like the house slave who defends slavery, or the woman-in-the-harem who defends polygyny because you at least benefit from the crumbs of the system. You'd rather be a guy who endlessly plays the "guys are victims" card than join with other men and women to dismantle an unjust system. That's pretty common, really.


Posted by: aimai | May 20, 2007 8:54:08 AM

ikl, I agree that Giuliani's living with a gay couple will be a problem for him, but I think the idea that his wearing drag a few times is going to hurt him is wishful thinking. The man isn't a transvestite or a drag queen or something. Plenty of red-blooded small-town American men put on a dress as a joke from time to time, and no one views it as an abomination.

Posted by: KCinDC | May 20, 2007 9:13:23 AM

Good to see Edwards increasing his Iowa lead in the gold standard of Iowa polls...

Posted by: Petey | May 20, 2007 9:59:24 AM

Amanda is exactly right. At the heart of "religious right" dogma is a nasty bigotry - against women, and also against gays, nonbelievers, and anyone who appears to be their intellectual superior. The controversy over the HPV vaccine should put this question to rest for good.

Posted by: Jason | May 20, 2007 11:51:04 AM

Amanda, your analysis is ridiculous from start to finish. Amazing that anyone takes that stuff seriously.

Sanpete, while that was very glib, but you did not address any of Amanda's substantive points. Thus you cannot be taken seriously.

The clue I have that I am unable to predict how social conservatives will react is the dress-wearing issue. Most of us saw Giuliani dress as Marilyn Monroe and thought, "ha ha. very funny. Good to be able to see that the mayor can have fun." I'm neither able to understand nor to decode the outrage over this rather minor, amusing episode.

Posted by: Constantine | May 20, 2007 11:54:40 AM

It's strange to me that people can read the words Amanda wrote, not notice how silly they are, and even complain that I didn't bother to explain why they're silly. What's with that?

"Family values" is manifestly not usually code for "patriarchy." The conservative concept of family values is about a variety of things, including the nuclear family, marriage, marital fidelity, and opposition to "alternative lifestyles." There is some overlap with patriarchy, but those are not the same. Anyone who believes they are wants to see things in a simplistic, polarized way so badly that reality just isn't allowed to interfere.

One could sensibly argue that many conservatives understand marriage and family in a way that includes or even emphasizes elements of patriarchy, but that's very different from claiming that when they speak of one they really mean the other. For example, most conservatives are happy to promote marriage and marital fidelity without regard to whether the husband leads or both partners are equal. Believe it or not, a fair number of conservatives concerned about family values don't have patriarchal marriages themselves and are fine with that.

Amanda goes on to apply her ridiculous thesis to argue for the ridiculous idea that conservatives are OK with serial divorce as long as the men initiate it. Did anyone buy that? It might follow if family values actually were nothing more than code for the most simplistic patriarchy, but that just isn't true even to the extent it's about patriarchy. Patriarchy isn't the same as men-get-what-they-want, however attractive that equivalence may be to some of its critics. And even a little acquaintance with the real world shows that conservatives don't excuse serial divorce because it's initiated by men. Most conservatives have no idea why a political candidate divorced and wouldn't think or feel that if the man initiated it would make it better--the opposite is far more likely, that the initiator gets the blame.

One could sensibly argue that conservatives are hypocritical to a degree in that they too easily excuse violations of "family values" among their leaders. But that's not what Amanda was arguing.

Amanda gives as an example to support her ridiculous thesis the even more ridiculous case of the rumor that Bush paid for an ex-girlfriend's abortion, to show that conservatives don't care about such things as long as the man got his way. Did no one notice that's just crazy as an argument? We don't even know if it hurt Bush, something Amanda slides over, and if we did that wouldn't show what Amanda infers. Most conservatives probably never even heard or gave any serious notice to that rumor because they had no reason to: it's just a rumor, not a fact, and it got very little attention in the press.

Amanda is exactly right. At the heart of "religious right" dogma is a nasty bigotry - against women, and also against gays, nonbelievers, and anyone who appears to be their intellectual superior.

Not "exactly" what Amanda said, not even close. But a nicely bigoted comment in its own right, particularly the last part. Hate breeds hate and its attendant bigotry.

Posted by: Sanpete | May 20, 2007 2:52:16 PM

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