The focus on family values in political discussion is relatively new. Although William Safire has produced multiple editions of his Dictionary of American Politics, the term does not appear until the 1995 edition, when Safire includes a quote from the 1976 Republican platform: “Divorce rates, threatened neighborhoods and schools and public scandal all create a hostile atmosphere that erodes family structures and family values.”
Already in 1992, however, “family values” had served as a GOP weapon in the presidential campaign. Dan Quayle attacked the television sitcom character Murphy Brown for having a child out of wedlock. An entire evening of the Republican National Convention was devoted to family values, during which Patrick Buchanan delivered a prime-time speech that warned the nation about a coming “culture war.” Meanwhile, the Christian Coalition, under the leadership of televangelist Pat Robertson, who ran for the presidential nomination as a Republican in 1988, attacked the Clintons as enemies of the family. “When Bill and Hillary Clinton talk about family values,” stated Robertson, “they are not talking about either families or values. They are talking about a radical plan to destroy the traditional family and transfer its functions to the federal government.”
The implication in the Republicans’ use of the term was that the Democrats had assumed a permissive attitude toward moral standards in general and abortion, single parenthood, and homosexual rights in particular, thus undermining the institution of the family. But both political parties attempted to capture the higher moral ground in the debate over the family: the Democrats fired back in 1992, accusing the Republicans of using the term as a code phrase for intolerance and discrimination. Further, it was a Democratic Congress that passed its version of the family-leave bill in the middle of the 1992 campaign, prompting candidate Clinton to conclude that “Republicans talk about family values while Democrats value families.” By election day the Republicans had adopted a new term, “traditional values.”
In 1994, when the Republicans won control of both houses of Congress for the first time in more than forty years, these “values” came to the fore again. Of the ten proposals included in the Republicans’ “Contract with America,” at least four were aimed specifically at families. Two years later, in Clinton’s quest for a second term, it was the Democrats who made “Families First” their campaign slogan. Voters were reminded that the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 was the first bill ever signed by President Clinton, that George Bush had vetoed it twice, and that Clinton’s 1996 opponent, Bob Dole, led the vote against the bill’s passage in 1990 and 1992 while serving as majority leader of the Senate.<...
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