Bob McDonnell’s pro-family thesis (extreme! offensive!) isn’t totally crazy
Robert McDonnell completed his master’s thesis 20 years ago, and now he’s being vilified as a political dolt. The GOP’s candidate for governor of Virginia wrote “The Republican Party’s Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of the Decade.” After he told reporter Amy Gardner of The Washington Post about the paper, she found out that it contained, well, more than a few politically incorrect terms and ideas:
he described working women and feminists as “detrimental” to the family. He said government policy should favor married couples over “cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators.” He described as “illogical” a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples.
The thesis also contained other controversial ideas: public funding of private schools, protections for parents who spank their children, abortion restrictions, less rigid separation of church and state, and federal tax credits for child-care.
Cultural liberals got wind of these ideas and terms, and they whacked him for it. Steve Benen of The Washington Monthly called the paper politically “extreme.” Hanna Rosin dismissed the paper, implying that it was so politically stupid as to not require a serious response (an uncharacteristic response from a sober-minded writer):
You have to feel sorry for poor Bob. He didn’t write anything different than you could have read in 100 books—and no doubt college theses—during what was the birth of the Christian pro-family movement. It “was simply an academic exercise and clearly does not reflect my views,” he told the Post.
Mounting a political defense of all of the ideas and terms in McDonnell’s paper is impossible. Legalized artificial contraception is enormously popular, despite that its early adherents question whether it caused more harm than good. Using the term “fornicator” makes a politician look like a prude, although Andrew Sullivan invoked it to criticize an author in a New Republic column around the time that McDonnell wrote his thesis. And attacking working women, if not feminists, arguably is the single dumbest thing a politician could do.
McDonnell himself has backed away from his thesis, dismissing it as the work of a young man, even though he was 34 when it was finished. Yet McDonnell and his critics go too far in assailing the thesis tout court. Not all of his ideas were politically stupid. Or to borrow a phrase from the immortal Hud Bannon, “Don’t shoot all the dogs just cuz some of ‘em got fleas.”
Two of the thesis’ proposals might well be politically popular. One is that federal child-care subsidies are unwise, as they encourage young mothers to enter the workforce. This position did not enjoy a large constituency twelve years ago and it enjoys less of a one today. As my wife would be too happy to point out, most young mothers don’t want to work to full time; they want to work part time or not at all. As a 2007 study from the Pew Research Center noted,
To be sure, perhaps McDonnell as a 34 year old opposed young mothers working even part time. But unless someone is intrepid enough to travel to Regent University’s library and photocopy the thesis, we won’t know.
The other popular idea is that government policy should privilege married couples over singles. Or at least the idea is popular among certain scholars, thinkers, and politicians.
On the left, Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco proposed a few years ago that the city spend $43 million to build family-friendly housing, one of the proposals from his family initiative. In the center, demographer Phillip Longman called for a “family-based social contract,” while scholar and writer William Galston urged repealing no-fault divorce laws for couples with young children. (In fact, at the time, Galston was President Clinton’s domestic policy advisor). And on the right, as Reihan Salam notes, many academics have argued in favor of pro-family policies.
Whether those proposals represent a groundswell for pro-family policies is hard to say. Certainly they challenge the idea that city officials should appeal primarily to members of the “creative class,” which is to say singles.
McDonnell is distancing himself from his thesis, so he likely thinks it’s politically radioactive. Don’t want to offend those Northern Virginia soccer moms! But it sure would be nice for him to defend the parts of his paper that are, you know, not just politically palatable but also wise policy.