“Hello, New Hampshire. I’m Cailin Rogers. I’m a consultant who has been divorced for twelve years. I live alone with my dog and cat, and my only child every other week. Thank you for having me here this evening, I’m looking forward to the debate.”
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If any candidate had introduced themselves like this at the Republican Presidential debate this past week, they would have been laughed off the stage. Though the Republicans have a far more diverse field of candidates than ever before—in terms of age, race, and gender—nearly all of them began the debate by displaying an overt commitment to their families. Although many Americans fit the profile of the fictional character above (divorced, single, and with hardly the 23 foster children that Michele Bachman boasts), not a single Republican candidate has that as their family background.
One can reasonably expect discussions between Republicans to contain themes of individual success, small business, small government, and support for the private sector. Though the Republican Party prides itself on a strong sense of individualism, the importance of family tempers this value. Many of the candidates pointedly told the audience exactly how many children they have in their lives. Former Governor Mitt Romney certainly invoked this tactic at the beginning of the debate: “And I have five sons, as you know, five daughters-in law, 16 grandkids. The most important thing in my life is to make sure their future is bright and that America is always known as the hope of the Earth.” A husband, a father, the quintessential family man, and—oh by the way— also a former governor. Romney stood alone on stage, but he made sure to bring his family with him.
However, the award for invoking the greatest number of children, by far, goes to Representative Ron Paul. “Before I went into the Congress, I delivered babies for a living and delivered 4,000 babies.” Paul approached the issue of family from a different perspective, building the families of other people. He made sure his concentration on the importance of family stood at the forefront of his introduction.
What is it that the candidates get out of announcing their commitment to their families? Beyond public policy, beyond politics, beyond experience, families matter to the average American. The American dream centers itself on individual success—success bolstered and appreciated by that individual’s family. Ideally, Americans go home at night to their spouse and children, or mother, father, and siblings. The nuclear family, strong, centric, and complete, makes the American dream. Even if the audiences at home do not have that strong, idealized family, they want candidates who do. Americans understand strong families as a baseline ideal. They (or rather we) want our elected officials to reflect our values and ideals. A focus on ‘the family’ builds a trust of and respect for Presidential candidates.
Out of the field of candidates, Representative Michele Bachman incorporated her family commitment into her answers most frequently; invoking her numerous foster children several times. As a female candidate, she played into an expectation of her as a maternal figure. Sheltering 23 foster children and raising 5 of her own portrayed her as a caring, compassionate figure, who has defended children from a harsh world. This stands in slight contrast to the male candidates who described themselves up as paternal figures. Americans expect a protective president to be in charge, which makes the creation of a father figure in the minds of voters a prime objective for male candidates. Bachman had the tight rope to walk of femininity and strength in the debate, a balance she must sustain as the race continues. But regardless of gender (or even age and race), the importance of a parental figure was emphasized in the pictures the candidates painted of themselves.
As the field narrows, the Republican candidates will continue to build a favorable perception in order to endear themselves to the American people. Rest assured that the candidate challenging President Obama in the general election will expound upon their public expertise, pragmatism, and problem-solving abilities. However, they will not lose the component of their perception as a parental figure. Whichever candidate closes the Republican nomination shall never introduce themselves as a divorcee, without a strong family behind them. Watch and see: the Republican nominee will be portrayed as the future mother or father of America.