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The GOP's War on Children

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As in most presidential election years, noisy battles have been raging as the nation's political armies gear up for what promises to be an even noisier fall. This means we'll continue to hear the familiar clatter about the many "wars" America is currently engaged in -- from "the war on terror" to "the war on Wall Street" to the new and nasty "war on women."

Even President Obama acknowledged this quadrennial tradition in his shtick at last month's White House Correspondents' Dinner, taking a light-hearted swipe at that most dependable of political wars, the "war on Christmas." And he got his Yuletide laugh -- in April, no less.

What's not so funny to me, however, is a real and credible war that's been brewing just below the radar this election season, and it is as subtle as it is dangerous: the war on children.

Ever since becoming a father 17 years ago, I have felt increased parental responsibility with each election, knowing that the older I get, the more my vote weighs upon my kids' future rather than on my own. And though Mitt Romney is now the last man standing in the GOP sweepstakes, the cumulatively strident voices that have risen throughout the primaries have set my protective dad-meter on red alert.

Granted, Republican voices have been dominating the news cycle, but that typically occurs when one party aligns to unseat an incumbent president. What's unusual this year, though, is the apparent hostility -- and apathy -- the GOP seems to be harboring for children.

Take education. Ordinarily, that's a no-brainer for a presidential candidate. Sure, there are credible hairs to split on the issue, from school vouchers to standardized testing, but in the constellation of campaign confrontations, it's an easy win.

Which makes it all the more unsettling to watch Mitt Romney adopt the GOP's slash-and-burn strategies for solving our nation's education woes. He has vowed to consolidate the Education Department (or, at least, make it "a heck of a lot smaller"); and he has backed Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal, which would reportedly eliminate 200,000 children from Head Start, reduce services for 10% of disadvantaged middle school kids, and cut Pell grants by more than $1,000 per college student. As for older kids saddled with education costs, Romney is all business: "Borrow money if you have to from your parents," he said. Clearly the man hasn't seen the average American's checkbook balance.

Then there's "Obamacare," which has inspired unified condemnation among the president's Republican adversaries. Fair enough -- it's a complicated plan and plenty can go wrong. Yet has any Republican -- including the presumptive presidential nominee -- acknowledged just how many kids will be left abandoned on the health care battlefield should the law be struck down?

Under the president's historic health care reform law, up to 17 million children will no longer be denied care for a pre-existing condition; 28 million children will not be subject to lifetime caps on their coverage; and 2.5 million kids may remain on their parents' health insurance until age 26.

Yet all of this is now under fire by Republicans as they seek to evict Obama from the White House. That seems like a lot of kids' lives to put in jeopardy, just for the sake of a single election issue.

But most dangerous to children -- and far more insidious, I think -- is the re-emergence of social and religious conservatism this year, particularly the ceaseless targeting of the gay community as a source of our nation's ills. Grown-ups can fight this kind of discrimination in court, whether they're taking on gay marriage laws or employee benefits to same-sex couples; but children -- especially gay adolescents struggling with their emerging sexual identity -- are falling victim to this holier-than-thou moralizing.

According to a study published in Pediatrics, gay and bisexual teens are 20% more likely to attempt suicide in politically conservative areas than in "supportive" environments. These numbers tragically bear out: In February, Rolling Stone reported on a rash of teen suicides -- nine in two years, four of them gay-related -- in the Minnesota school district represented by former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, who continues her virulent crusade against the "homosexual agenda" in public schools.

Then, just last month, a 17-year-old gay student named Jack Denton Reese -- a Mormon from Mountain Green, Utah, deep inside Romney country -- took his own life after being relentlessly bullied at school.

Americans are generally unfamiliar with Mormonism, and one would have hoped that Romney, a lifelong adherent to that faith -- and someone who had cruelly bullied a gay classmate himself in high school -- would have commented on the tragedy, assuring us that religious fundamentalism played no role in the child's death. Or that bullying was deplorable. Or something. But no such luck; just silence.

Four years ago, candidate Obama coolly brushed off the eruptions and assaults of the campaign by referring to the presidential election as a "silly season." At the time, I found that to be the perfect definition. But this year is different. Once you endanger our children's well-being, it's no longer silly. It's unacceptable.

* * *

This essay was originally published in USA Today on May 23, 2012. Bruce Kluger is the co-author, with David Slavin, of the upcoming book, Dog on the Roof! On the Road With Mitt & the Mutt, illustrated by Colleen Clapp (Simon & Schuster/Touchstone).

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