Over the weekend, the New York Times’ new Sunday Review columnist, Frank Bruni, came out in favor of “oratorical contraception” on the campaign trail. Part of Bruni’s argument is that, if candidates want their kids to be “off-limits” during election season, children should be kept out of the discussion, period. Specifically, he wants fecund Republicans to stop trotting out their families as evidence of their qualifications to be president. After describing several aspirants’ large broods, Bruni laments:
Of course a big part of what all of these Republican candidates are doing is trying to appeal to anti-abortion voters. But they and other politicians, including both the Democratic and Republican members of Congress who brought up their offspring during last week’s fiscal wrangling, are also sending the message that they can be trusted to whittle down the debt, shore up the country and otherwise safeguard the future precisely because they have a direct biological stake in it. If they breed, they lead, or so their self-promotion holds.
That’s ludicrous. Progeny aren’t proof of caring and farsightedness, qualities manifest in politicians who never procreated — George Washington, for example. This Founding Father fathered none. He nonetheless proved eminently capable of the long view.
How many children someone has says nothing about how well he or she will govern, and the tableaux of family bliss that candidates choreograph regularly prove to be fictions. During the 2008 presidential election, which was unprecedentedly awash in little kids, John and Elizabeth Edwards made the most extravagant show of a tightly knit brood, transplanting their two youngest, Emma Claire, then 9, and Jack, 7, from the classroom to the campaign bus, a rolling romper room. Need I even finish this paragraph?
Question is, why shouldn’t the decision to raise a family—particularly a large family—be an important consideration in politics? Electing a man (or woman) president is a major exercise in public trust: We’re (usually) not choosing him because of how well he’s done the job before, but rather because of how well we hope he’ll do the job once he has it. On the part of voters, making this decision requires an assessment of various characteristics that don’t necessarily come across in a résumé or list of past offices held—qualities like honor, steadfastness, emotional and mental stability, loyalty, charity, and so forth.
And one area of life that tests, and reveals, all these elements of character is the sphere of family—particularly the raising of children. Now, I’ve never done it myself, but I gather that raising children involves enormous patience, the subjugation of ego and selfish desires, and a sense of humor. Having children is an essentially hopeful, giving act; Bruni’s claims notwithstanding, it’s impossible to see how it doesn’t indicate a certain concern for and investment in what happens in the future.
As a practical matter, politicians who put the time, money, and hard work into raising large families are also doing us all a big favor: a large part of why our entitlement state is headed toward collapse is demographic (fewer workers to support more retirees). And in the case of the current GOP field, or at least the candidates Bruni mentions—including Mormons, evangelicals, and Catholics—it also says something about fidelity to the tenets of one’s faith, an issue that matters to many Republican primary voters.
This isn’t to say that people who don’t have children can’t possess these same qualities. Nor is it to say that people who have many children are necessarily good people. Some of Bruni’s caveats do make sense. But he strings together such exceptions in an unpersuasive effort to rebut what seems like a fairly self-evident rule: It takes a certain kind of person to marry (and stay married) and raise a large family. And the traits that define such a person can tell us something—not everything, but not nothing, either—about whether he (or she) will make a good president.
At least, that’s my view. Curious to hear others’ thoughts on whether kids—the decision to have and raise them, not necessarily the details of their lives—should be fair game during election season.
Also, is Bruni right that “candidates who seek credit for parenthood are also asking to be judged by the results”?