Politicians love children. We believe that to be true because they say it all the time (you know, things like "children are our future"). They also showcase their own kids during commercials, campaign with them if they're old enough, and even kiss babies when they get the chance.
So why, when they make their policy decisions and set their public priorities, do so few of our elected officials offer specific plans -- as they routinely do for budget cuts, military spending and an array of other matters -- for how they would provide children with better medical care, enhanced educational opportunities or increased prospects for success, for instance by reforming the foster care system so that more boys and girls can stop shuttling from home to home and can, instead, move into permanent, loving families? Children are routinely cited as the beneficiaries of the ideas politicians suggest, whether tax cuts or hikes, increased spending or less of it. But it's hard to recall a single instance of a candidate advocating a specific programmatic initiative with children at its core.
All this comes to mind because child welfare, specifically relating to international adoption, actually has recently made it onto the political radar screen -- although not exactly in the way one would have hoped. Rather than appearing because a candidate finally decided that children's well-being should be on the list of America's explicit priorities, the issue arose instead because someone decided it was good fodder for an attack ad.
The YouTube video, released by self-proclaimed supporters of Texas Congressman Ron Paul, labels presidential rival John Huntsman as a "Manchurian Candidate." It contains one shot of the former Utah governor holding his daughter born in India and another of him with his daughter born in China; disparaging captions accompany each photo, with the cumulative objective of questioning Huntsman's values.
It's a revolting piece of work on many levels. Using children as a weapon against their parents for political gain crosses the most basic ethical line. And, as the leader of an adoption research and policy organization, I find it truly unsettling that anyone can suggest that providing a family for a child from another nation is somehow an indicator of the parents' loyalty to their own.
Huntsman denounced the ad, of course, explaining that his Chinese daughter had been abandoned and his Indian daughter had been "left for dead" (unfortunately implying that adoption is a means of rescuing children rather than a way of forming families -- but that's a commentary for another day), and saying that his two adopted girls are "a daily reminder that there are a lot of kids in this world who don't have the breaks that you do."
What Huntsman did not do -- and neither did any of the other candidates, nor any of the journalists covering them -- is use this vicious video as the jumping off point for a discussion of the children in our own country and in others who "don't have the breaks that you do." Most to the point, no one used the occasion to suggest ways to actually do something about it.
Is the message clear yet? Just in case I've been too subtle, here's the point: Children's concerns, embedded in concrete proposals and programs, should be on the priority list of every candidate in every party of every ideology running for every office, right there alongside national security, improving the economy and other genuinely vital issues. Nearly every politician says it's already true, so how about if journalists and advocacy groups and Facebook-ers and Twitter-ers and voters in the audience posing questions at debates start demanding chapter and verse?
It's wonderful that Michele Bachmann provided foster care for 23 teenage girls, but it would have been more wonderful to turn her experience from a talking point on the campaign trail into a conversation about how to solve the problem of older youth aging out of the U.S. child welfare system without families (see the Adoption Institute's report on the subject).
It's important for the candidates to discuss LGBT issues, but why is that almost always done with the focus solely on the adults -- i.e., should they be allowed to marry and so forth? How about if we flip the focus and ask about all the children in our country languishing in foster care, pointing out the research showing that lesbians and gay men provide good homes for a growing number of these boys and girls (see the Adoption Institute's report on the subject)?
And when candidates run or are considered for any office, how about if the media shine a spotlight on their records on adoption, foster care and children's issues in general, in addition to all the others that journalists already scrutinize? If Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is considered a serious vice presidential candidate, for instance, he should have to explain why he vetoed legislation last year that would have given adopted adults in his state the same rights to their original birth certificates -- and thereby the same access to their medical and historical information -- as everyone else has as a matter of course.
Children don't lobby, they don't vote and they don't contribute big bucks to political campaigns, so it's not a big surprise that questions of the kind I'm suggesting haven't made it to center stage yet. But they should and, to quote nearly every politician who ever was, here's why: Children, really and truly, are our future.