09/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Family Values

Where are the "values voters" when we need them? For last night in Denver, Americans began to hear the inescapable reality: in this election, the Democratic ticket reflects true family values.

The contrast is stark. Last night, Michelle Obama told her story: raised by devoted parents; her father, suffering from the growing pain of multiple sclerosis, rising earlier each morning to dress himself and take himself to work. His sacrifice and their love pushed their daughter and son to use her brains and discipline to grasp opportunities they never had -- college and, in her case, law school at Harvard. We'll hear more about Barack Obama's story over the week -- raised by a single mother and loving grandparents, providing his children with the love of a father that he never had.

In the audience were the Senator Biden and his family. Biden -- as Americans will surely learn on Wednesday -- is an exemplar in the Sodom and Gomorrah on the Potomac, that is the nation's capitol. He lost his first wife and daughter when they were struck by a truck; his two sons were seriously injured. He was sworn into the Senate standing by the bedside of his son, struggling to survive the accident. He then dedicated himself to raising those children, each night taking the train from Washington back to Wilmington so that he could be there for his sons. Eventually, he remarried, and did the same for the daughter he had with his second wife.

John McCain's family values -- not so much. Raised amidst the privilege provided the son and grandson of an admiral, he was famed for his wild youth. Married after graduating from the Naval Academy, he married and adopted his first wife's two children and had a daughter with her. She suffered a crippling automobile accident while he was in captivity in Vietnam. When he came back, he admittedly had a series of affairs with other women. At the Saddleback forum, he said the major "moral failure" of his life was the "failure of my marriage.' But His marriage didn't just "fail," he abandoned it, starting an affair with a wealthy heiress, and eventually asking his wife for a divorce. It took several years for the children to be reconciled with him. Cindy McCain's family financed his first campaign.Her fortune made him one of the richest men in the Senate, unable even to remember how many houses he has. He has two daughters (one adopted) and two sons with Cindy McCain.

In politics, adultery and other sins of the flesh are neither particularly rare nor partisan. There must be something in the water, or in the DNA of politicians: vows of monogamy, of "for richer or poorer," seem to have an escape clause The Democratic Party of Bill Clinton and John Edwards can't throw stones.

Hypocrisy, the tribute that vice pays to virtue, is a bipartisan Washington ritual. So politicians like McCain often espouse the family values that they flaunt in practice. And most voters, sensibly enough, are more concerned about whether a presidential candidate is on their side, than on whether he or she has lived a life of virtue.

But McCain's policies aren't exactly family friendly either. He opposes raising the minimum wage. He would tax employer based health care, which could stick families with a $2000-3000 tax increase. He's opposed equal pay for women, paid family leave and a range of measures that would help families struggling with declining wages and rising costs. He'd privatize Social Security which would truly hurt a parent whose spouse suffered an early death or a crippling disease.

How partisan are the evangelical voters who are said to be the "value voters?" Do they believe it is more important to parade conservative values than to practice them? Is adultery a minor sin, and less important that pledging to oppose a woman's right to choose -- while doing nothing as the number of abortions continues rise? Do they rally against those whose personal values are exemplary because they oppose their political views?

For years, Republicans have chanted their mantra -- low taxes, smaller government, strong military, family values - even as they have violated it in practice. In fact, they lowered taxes for the wealthy, while raising payroll taxes for working people - and now McCain wants to tax their health care. They left government less effective, but not smaller. They weakened the military and shortchanged veterans, even as they raised the Pentagon's budgets. And they have mocked the family values they espouse in the private lives they lived.

Will this matter to "value voters" or to true conservatives? That remains to be seen. But this time, if you care about family values, it is pretty clear who exemplifies the values Americans want to teach their children.

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