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Subject to Debate | The Nation

Subject to Debate

Katha Pollitt

If Gore loses the White House--and some of you reading this will know whether or not he did--he'll have no one but himself to blame. Readers of this page know I've been something of a Naderskeptic all along (I'm planning a tactical vote for him here in Gore-solid New York, but if I lived in a toss-up state I'd vote Democratic and hope you would--or did--too). Still, it's not Nader's fault that huge numbers of voters don't care if Bush is a reactionary moron and find his Christian frat boy act appealing. Ralph didn't tell Gore to go after the dithering undecideds and to forget about energizing his base and reaching out to suburban and working women. Remember when abortion and gun control were going to be key issues? When the Million Moms were going to sway the election? Ralph didn't make Gore distance himself so far from Clinton--a genius campaigner with a 60 percent approval rating--that he couldn't plausibly claim the "good" economy as his own, even as he also wasn't willing to acknowledge the millions who have been victimized by Clinton's policies on prisons, welfare, drugs, civil liberties, privacy. Who was stopping Gore from announcing that on second thought, sending a $1.3 billion anti-drug aid package to Colombia was a terrible idea? Wouldn't that have been a better way to prove he was his "own man," not Clinton's, than spouting sanctimonious pieties about faith and family?

Or take capital punishment: When the issue came up in the debates, Gore and Bush both said they were for the death penalty. Gore could easily have said that, like Republican Governor Ryan of Illinois, he supported the death penalty but was troubled by studies showing an alarming number of false convictions in capital cases, and so he also supported a moratorium on executions. Sure, some of the undecideds would have peeled off to Bush--you can imagine the campaign ads in which relatives retell ghastly murders of loved ones and accuse the Vice President of denying them "closure." But then Gore could have run ads highlighting Bush's appalling record as death-penalty king of Texas, and his lazy and frivolous approach to the whole issue, which troubles some conservatives and has even become a standard laugh line for David Letterman. By taking a political risk--in a righteous cause--Gore would have been able to counteract the popular view of him as calculating and expedient, which is doing him more harm than his actual positions, which voters tell pollsters they like.

The same could be said of Gore's problems to his left. If Gore wants to defuse Nader, why doesn't he fire back on a whole range of substantive issues instead of acting like Nader has stolen votes that somehow belong to Gore by right? Gore has a record as Vice President, and he presumably believes in the positions that drive Naderites wild--for NAFTA, for military interventions around the globe, for welfare reform, for ladling vast sums of money into the Pentagon. He could take the trouble to explain why he is right and Nader is wrong on the issues that divide them, or why he is being wrongly blamed for policies that were actually the work of a Republican Congress, or why he is the best person to undo the damage Nader has identified.

Nader's not perfect, after all--Gore could ask why he doesn't belong to the party whose ticket he heads, why he told Outside magazine he would prefer a win for Bush (readers will remember he told me the opposite), why he has so little support among the people--minorities, women, blue-collar workers--whose interests he claims to represent. He could point out that while four years of Republicanism may move a few to the left, it may also drive far more people to embrace the Democrats, any Democrats, so the whole Nader phenomenon contains the seeds of its own destruction, in which case why not cut to the chase and vote for the Democrat now? He could make plenty of hay out of Nader's ill-informed and self-serving insistence that a Bush win will not endanger reproductive rights--most recently, Nader told Sam Donaldson that even if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, "it just reverts it back to the states." Just! As if there aren't at least fourteen states ready to criminalize abortion the minute they get the go-ahead. As if there aren't already more than 300 restrictions on abortion already on the books! At one time Gore's ferocity as a debater was going to be his decisive strength. It may have backfired with the feel-good nincompoop Bush, but Gore could always try getting down off his high horse and asking Ralph how he would feel about letting other freedoms lose their constitutional protection. Should fifty state legislatures decide every year how much freedom of speech Ralph Nader is going to have?

It's perfectly fair to attack Nader. It's even fair to attack him in nasty, personal ways, the way Naderites attack Gore--by, for example, spreading the right-wing disinformation that Gore said he invented the Internet and was the model for Love Story. But it's absurd and kind of pathetic for Toby Moffett and the "Nader's Raiders for Gore" to wring their hands and beg Nader to step aside for the good of the country--it would make more sense to beg Gore to address the concerns of Nader voters. It would even make more sense for them to address--since Gore isn't doing the job--the fence-sitters who are moving toward Bush: pro-choice women, for instance, who think Bush isn't serious about working to limit abortion (an illusion not shared by the Christian Coalition, one might add), and union men who are having trouble choosing between their guns and their job protection.

According to a group of seven academic political forecasters, Gore is supposed to win because the man and the campaign and the issues are unimportant: Whether the incumbent party stays in the White House all depends on the state of the economy, both actual and perceived. This alone can explain the outcome of every election since 1948. If Gore loses despite his tremendous structural advantages, what can you say except he screwed up monumentally? Clinton triangulated against the left, but Gore acted as if the left didn't exist. You can't blame the left if it came back to bite him on the behind.

I keep reading that the election turns on women's votes. Yet apart from the issue of abortion, women seem curiously invisible this election season--except of course for the endlessly focus-grouped, interviewed and psychoanalyzed women of Ohio and other toss-up states, who can't decide whether to vote for Gore because he kissed his wife or for Bush because they like his mother. Are these ninnies really representative, or is their prominence more a symptom of the emptiness of political reporting, which has cast the race as a personality contest between a Fibber and a Dope? What, for example, do women tell pollsters is their most important issue? Hint: It's not whether Al Gore or George W. would be more fun on a date or make a better babysitter. It's pay equity.

Yes, women are apparently unpersuaded that they earn 71 cents on the male dollar because, as the Independent Women's Forum insists, they choose low-paid jobs in order to have lots of time and energy for childcare and housecleaning. Yet when Bernard Shaw asked Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman about pay equity in their Veep debate, the two men quickly turned to the marvels of their respective tax proposals. Shaw let them--what's pay equity to him? Even issues that are on the table are discussed as if they have no gendered aspects--affirmative action, for instance, or proposals to privatize all or part of Social Security, which will affect women much more than men: Not only do women on average live longer, they make up the large majority of retirees and dependents who survive on Social Security alone. Violence against women has gone unmentioned--as opposed to media violence and smut, a major theme and supposed woman-pleaser--ditto insurance coverage for contraception (Viagra's already covered, but you knew that), high-quality daycare, the near-impossibility of collecting court-ordered child support from an ex-husband who doesn't want to pay it (there's a middle-class issue for you) and dozens of other problems facing real-life women. There are a number of women running for national office, but you don't hear much about them. From the media point of view, the continuing scandal of women's underrepresentation in government is as musty as the ERA. Women had their year back in 1992.

There's only one woman on the political scene who seems to evoke any kind of passion--and that's Hillary Clinton, or "Hillary." But most of the passion is negative: She's like a Rorschach test of feminine evil. Through direct mail aimed at Hillary-haters across the land, the Conservative Leadership Political Action Committee has raised almost $2 million for her Republican opponent, Rick Lazio, a hyperaggressive nobody whose wife boasts that she cleans her own house--I suppose that's the contemporary equivalent of Pat Nixon's good Republican cloth coat. The First Lady, a supporter of the death penalty, welfare reform and interventionist foreign policy, is depicted as an "angry woman who is abusive to White House staff and obsessed with imposing her radical left vision on the rest of America." How hated is Hillary? Eighteen percent of Democratic primary voters pulled the lever for her totally obscure challenger, a doctor who subsequently revealed himself to be a Lazio supporter. Maureen Dowd has completely lost herself in an ecstasy of psychological projection--her Hillary is like Joan Crawford in an old weepie: While the Gores and Liebermans bill and coo, she rattles around in her empty new house, loveless and lonely, and excluded from society as "Manhattan's dread extra woman." On the Drudge Report, Juanita Broaddrick accused Hillary of threatening her at a political function two weeks after her alleged rape: The threat was conveyed by thanking Broaddrick effusively--too effusively--for her support.

Disapproval of Hillary for sticking with her marriage cuts across party lines--Jimmy Breslin and George Will together at last with all those suburban harpies happy to knife a woman who steps out of the box. But her devotion to Bill has brought her an odd defender, Linda Waite, author with right-wing columnist Maggie Gallagher of a book-length soundbite called The Case for Marriage. In a New York Times Op-Ed, Waite castigates conservatives like Will for taking opportunistic potshots at Hillary's decision to stay married: After all, Hillary is honoring the institution of marriage and making the choice conservatives--although presumably not Will, who is divorced--think people should make when faced with marital trouble. "Staying in an imperfect marriage is a perfectly reasonable choice for many women," writes Waite, not to mention good for society. Interestingly, Waite seems to have forgotten her own potshot at Hillary: In their book, Waite and Gallagher torment a remark of Mrs. Clinton's that seems clearly aimed at gossips and Nosy Parkers ("I learned a long time ago that the only two people who count in any marriage are the two that are in it") to portray her as a standard-bearer for the idea that marriage is a private contract with no social significance. In fact, as they should know, Mrs. Clinton is quite a conservative on marital matters; she supported the Republican-authored Personal Responsibility Act, which begins by stating that "marriage is the foundation of a successful society"; in It Takes a Village, she wrote favorably of making divorce harder to get.

If you want to see a woman politician boldly standing up for the right to privacy--or anything else--you have to go to the movies. In The Contender, a swell political thriller, Joan Allen plays Laine Hanson, a Republican-turned-Democrat senator who is nominated to fill out a dead Vice President's term and finds herself under withering attack for supposedly participating in a fraternity sexfest as a college freshman. The movie, which is dedicated to "our daughters," is one long prayer for the abolition of the double standard--which it then, in typical Hollywood fashion, endorses. Laine is so pure and idealistic that she survives only because Jeff Bridges, as the wily Clintonesque President, stoops to tactics that would never even occur to her. In other words, in order to be in politics, a woman has to be too good for politics.

Every five years the psychologist Judith Wallerstein updates her ongoing
study of 131 children whose parents were going through divorce in Marin
County, California, in 1971, and every five years her warnings about the
dire effects of divorce on children make the headlines, the covers and
the talk shows. Her new book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce,
ups the ante: She now believes that parents should grit their teeth and
stay together, so traumatized were her interviewees even into their 20s,
contending with drugs and drink, bad boy-friends, unsatisfactory jobs,
low self-esteem and lack of trust in relationships. Before you young
cynics out there say welcome to the club, remember: This is not a
moralistic sermon dreamed up by Dr. Laura, the Pope, your relatives or
even Judith Wallerstein. This is science.

But what if it isn't? Scholars have long been critical of Wallerstein's
methods: She had no control group--kids just like the ones in her study
but whose unhappily married parents stayed together. (In her new book
she has attempted to get around this flaw by interviewing a "comparison
sample" of people from intact families who went to high school with her
subjects, but the two groups are not carefully matched.) She generalizes
too quickly: Can sixty Marin County families really stand in for all
America? Are the seventies us? Doesn't it make a difference that fathers
today are more involved with their kids both before and after divorce,
that mothers are better educated and better able to support themselves,
that divorce is no longer a badge of immorality and failure? It never
occurs to Wallerstein, either, that the very process of being
interviewed and reinterviewed about the effects of parental divorce for
a quarter-century by a warm, empathetic and kindly professional would
encourage her subjects to see their lives through that lens. "Karen" may
really believe divorce explains why she spent her early 20s living with
a layabout--blaming your parents is never a hard sell in America--but
that doesn't mean it's true.

The media tend to treat such objections rather lightly. Wallerstein's
critics "don't want to hear the bad news," wrote Walter Kirn in
Time's recent cover story. The real bad news, though, is the way
Wallerstein has come to omit from her writings crucial information she
herself presented in her first book about her research, Surviving the
Breakup
, published in 1980.

How did Wallerstein find her divorcing couples, and what sort of people
were they? In her new book, she writes that they were referred by their
lawyers "on the basis of their willingness to participate." Surviving
the Breakup
gives quite a different picture: "The sixty families who
participated in this study came initially for a six-week divorce
counseling service. The service was conceptualized and advertised as a
preventive program and was offered free of charge to all families in the
midst of divorce. Parents learned of the service through attorneys,
school teachers, counselors, social agencies, ministers, friends, and
newspaper articles." In other words, Wallerstein was not just offering
people a chance to advance the cause of knowledge, she was offering free
therapy--something she today vehemently denies ("Naturally I wanted to
be sure that any problem we saw did not predate the divorce. Neither
they [the kids] nor their parents were ever my patients"). Obviously,
people who sign up for therapy, not to mention volunteering their kids
for continuing contact, have problems; by choosing only therapy-seekers,
Wallerstein essentially excluded divorcing couples who were coping well.

Today, Wallerstein provides no information about the psychological
well-being of the parents before divorce, but in her 1980 book, she is
very clear about how troubled they were. Only one-third displayed
"generally adequate psychological functioning." Fifty percent of the men
and almost as many women were "moderately troubled"--"chronically
depressed, sometimes suicidal individuals...with severe neurotic
difficulties or with handicaps in relating to another person, or those
with longstanding problems in controlling their rage or sexual
impulses." Fifteen percent of the men and 20 percent of the women "had
histories of mental illness, including paranoid thinking, bizarre
behavior, manic-depressive illnesses, and generally fragile or
unsuccessful attempts to cope with the demands of life, marriage, and
family." Some underwent "hospitalization for severe mental illness,
suicide attempts, severe psychosomatic illnesses, work histories ridden
with unsatisfactory performance, or arrests for assault." It's not for
me to say whether a sample in which two-thirds of the participants range
from chronically depressed to outright insane represents the general
public--but attributing all their children's struggles to divorce is
patently absurd.

The way Wallerstein describes her sample has changed also. In a table in
her 1980 book, she places 28 percent of the families in the two lowest
of five social-class rankings, as defined by the Hollingshead index, and
23 percent in the highest. In the new book, these figures are mentioned
in passing, but at the same time she calls all the families "middle
class"--including a famous wife-beating TV executive and his former
spouse, a wealthy travel agent who spent her life globe-trotting. All
are now "educated," as well, including the substantial percentage of
parents (24 percent of the mothers and 18 percent of the fathers at
initial contact in 1971) who hadn't been to college. Gone too are such
relevant facts from the earlier book as that one-third of the couples
had "rushed into a precipitous marriage because of an unplanned
pregnancy" and that half the wives, "because of their age and lack of
job experience, were viewed realistically as unemployable."

In short, what we have here are not generic white suburbanites who threw
away workable marriages in order to actualize their human potential in a
Marin County hot tub. We have sixty disastrous families, featuring crazy
parents, economic insecurity, trapped wives and, as Wallerstein does
discuss, lots of violence (one-quarter of the fathers beat their wives;
out of the 131 children, thirty-two had witnessed such attacks). How on
earth can she claim that divorce is what made her young people's lives
difficult? The wonder is that they are doing as well as they are.

I still think third-party politics is mostly a crock, but then, so is two-party politics.

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Author

Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the...

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