06/15/2011 06:30 pm ET | Updated Aug 15, 2011

4000 Babies: GOP Fecundity and the 2012 Election

The second GOP debate on June 13th in New Hampshire opened with a dizzying account of the candidates' propensity to conceive and rear children.


Children and grandchildren were piled like cord wood: Rick Santorum described himself as a politician and father of seven. Michele Bachmann listed among her accomplishments that she was a "mother of five" and "proud foster parent of 23 children." Not to be outdone, Mitt Romney echoed Bachmann and Santorum explaining that he has five sons, five daughters-in-law, and 16 "grandkids." Ron Paul dwarfed Romney and the others by reminding the audience that he has delivered more than 4000 babies, but made no mention of his high profile progeny, Rand Paul, currently serving in Congress. Unsurprisingly, Gingrich evaded the issue entirely, not wishing to remind voters about his infidelity. The remaining candidates revealed decidedly less prolific achievements in child production: Pawlenty described his two "beautiful daughters," and Cain acknowledged his two children and three grandchildren before opening and later closing the debate with the mantra that the campaign is "not about us" but about "the children and grandchildren."

Deploying the symbolism of family in a political campaign is nothing new. President Obama's attractive and impeccable family served him well during his campaign and now during his presidency. Likewise, Sarah Palin's political persona is rooted in her role as "hockey mom" and "mama grizzly." However, the frequency and tone of the GOP candidates' references to babies and birth throughout this debate seems unique. In all, the candidates used the word "children" 14 times, "kids" or "grandkids" eight times, and "babies" three times. When children were not literally referenced, their specter haunted the debate in countless references to "growth." But why?

One possibility is that the candidates invoke fertility surreptitiously to underscore the masculinity of the male candidates and to bolster Bachmann's standing with the pro-life community.

Another possibility is that the candidates' urge to tout their childbearing success could simply be an outgrowth of conservative discourse that is already fascinated by the rhetoric of reproduction: Obama's presidency is labeled "illegitimate." Wealthy Americans are called "job creators." Illegal immigrants produce "anchor babies," and anti-abortion activists fetishize conception and declare themselves "pro-life."

A third possibility is that these candidates are mining the symbolic capital of fertility, birth, and childrearing. In The Queen of American Goes to Washington City, Lauren Berlant claims that the possession of "a remarkable American body" in a mass media driven culture has the capacity to render its possessor "magical and symbolic." The timeless curves of Marilyn Monroe or the sinewy contours of today's athletes and leading men are representative of such an idealized American body. Although none of the Republican contenders fit these descriptions, Berlant would likely agree that the extraordinary fecundity of these candidates suggests that their bodies are too "remarkable" and consequently capable of transforming these individuals from candidates into powerful symbols.

The New Hampshire debate initiates a symbolic imaginary in which the Republican candidates' capacity to produce and rear children is meant to be read as indicative of an equivalent capacity sow and cultivate economic prosperity. Though not nearly as lovable as Peter Seller's character Chance in Being There, this group of candidates posit themselves as nurturing, maternal caretakers of the American economy. Beneath a flurry of worn metaphors--"shackles," "stalled trains," and "wheelhouses"--these candidates claim to possess the mother's milk necessary to nourish the anemic economy.

This powerful image could potentially sway independent voters--especially those who hear conservative commentators compulsively bleat that Obama hates America and is trying to destroy it. However, the Republican record of the previous decade demonstrates that deregulation and tax cuts are anything but a panacea. The Bush White House renounced the need for regulation and corporate oversight and instituted massive tax cuts. The resultant economic collapse "forced" the public sector to subsidize the losses of the private sector driving the nation deeper into debt and costing millions of Americans their jobs and their homes.

That said, the candidates' dramatic shift in tone from that of their 2008 predecessors is strange. This pillowy soft assemblage of candidates has abandoned the hawkish, hyper-masculine, pro-torture rhetoric of the 2008 presidential campaign. References to strategic air strikes, enhanced interrogation techniques, and troop surges have given way to depictions of parenthood as a positive site of social possibility and the literal and figurative potential for America's rebirth. This emergent rebranding of the Republicans marks a distinct rhetorical shift from the midterm elections and will be one for Democratic strategists to watch.