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Barney Frank

Playing politics with family values

By Barney Frank
September 7, 2008
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WITH ONE important exception, what we have learned about vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and her family does not reflect badly on any of them. What the Palin family story does do is underscore the flaws in the political philosophy that was critical to her being selected by John McCain.

The exception, of course, is the allegation that she tried to get the Alaska public safety commissioner to fire her former brother-in-law and fired the commissioner when he would not give in to her wishes. Public officials cannot use their official positions on behalf of family members in a domestic dispute.

The divorce itself and the pregnancy of Palin's daughter are the sorts of things that occur in many American families, and those involved are entitled to be treated with compassion. But that is precisely the point that makes this a relevant political issue. Palin was selected by McCain in substantial part because of her high standing as a leading advocate of the socially conservative wing of the Republican Party. McCain was reportedly leaning strongly toward naming Joe Lieberman to be his running mate, but was deterred by the vehement opposition of social conservatives. And when Palin was selected, James Dobson, one of the leading advocates for imposing personal moral choices on the rest of us, announced that this was the one thing that switched him from skepticism about McCain to enthusiastic support.

According to that right-wing social viewpoint, divorce, teen pregnancy, and other lapses in family values are the fault of liberals. According to this political movement, respecting the right of gay and lesbian people to formalize their relationships; refusing to censor the Internet, books, television or movies; supporting age appropriate sex education; and refusing to allow religion to be inculcated by official government means, are the causes of social dysfunction in America. And every indication we have is that Palin believes this viewpoint.

That is why the questions of divorce and teen pregnancy are relevant in discussions of the McCain/Palin ticket. The individuals involved in these cases deserve to be treated with compassion, but so do millions of other Americans who find themselves in similar situations. But, sadly, they are often met with criticism and hostile public policy formulated by those who now claim Palin as their political champion. Too often, people on the right seek to impose strict standards on others, and blame them for falling short, while making exceptions for those close to them. Respect and compassion should extend to all who find themselves in similar situations.

The problems that have affected Palin's family are part of the experience of millions of people who face the stresses and strains, moral dilemmas, and difficult choices of contemporary life. The right wing, of which Palin is one of the acclaimed leaders, rejects this view, and argues that it is the failure of many of us to adopt their particular moral view that is the cause of these problems.

The glaring inconsistency between the social philosophy that blames liberalism for divorce and teen pregnancy and the facts of Palin's family life further underlines the serious shortcomings of that philosophy. This does not mean that family members are "fair game," a view that some have inaccurately attributed to me. People are not "game," fair or unfair. They are human beings who often face difficult personal decisions.

The relevant political point about the existence of these incidents in Palin's family is not that they reflect badly on her or her relatives, but that they further reveal the central flaw of the harshly judgmental and intolerant philosophy she exemplifies: She advocates restricting the personal freedom and right to fair treatment of many Americans in a fruitless effort to eradicate the kind of behavior that, as her own experience shows, does not lend itself to this sort of approach.

US Representative Barney Frank is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

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