All in the Family

When did single parenthood and teen pregnancy stop being important to the family values party?

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The Internet was buzzing with rumors that Gov. Sarah Palin's 4-month-old son is actually the child of her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol. To silence these rumors, Camp McCain-Palin released this bombshell: Bristol couldn't have had the infant because she is five months pregnant.

Whew! This is the stuff of Access Hollywood.

McCain claimed he knew about the pregnancy, but the timing was suspect. The announcement, squeezed in-between a pared-down Republican Convention and Hurricane Gustav's impact on New Orleans, allowed the bomb to fall more like a leaf.

Now, the storm has subsided, and the political one is roaring back up. The Republicans are in defense mode with some arguing that it is in poor taste to make Palin's family situation a campaign issue.

Really? When one considers the high-wattage criticism surrounding the year's most-famous pregnant teen, Jamie Lynn Spears, and all the talk about how the actress's high-profile glorified teenage pregnancy and the news reports of a teenage pregnancy pact that followed, it's hard to pass off Bristol's pregnancy as a kind of private family affair.

But even worse, some Republicans are spinning Bristol as a poignant example of the-right-to-life and an opportunity for the potential second family to relate to regular folk.

This is the same Republican Party of the mid- to late 20th century that solidified a careful ideology of "family values" with emphasis on traditional mores and thinking. Cracked-face or not, the rightist swing of Republican politics doesn't neatly allow for such "mistakes" as teenage pregnancy for a candidate, especially during a major election year.

Recall how the fictional Murphy Brown's pregnancy morphed into a national debate when then-Vice President Dan Quayle pointed to it as an example of the decline in proper family values? This is the same party that favors abstinence and marriage initiatives over birth control and teen sex. The McCain-Palin camp went into shrewd damage control with the initial story spin: The story was leaked because of the terrible rumor, Bristol will be marrying the young father with the love and support of her family, and anyone can make a mistake but they are doing the right thing now—[getting married], the daughter is not running for public office . . . Yet, this is the same election year in which Obama's legitimate wife has been referred to as his "baby's mama" and suspicion by association [Rev. Jeremiah Wright] got more attention than the issues.

Palin's purpose on the ticket is partly to shore up support from the conservatives while displaying a likable "independent" bent toward reform. With the addition of Bristol's pregnancy into the mix, McCain is forcing his party to deal with some slippery identity questions—already exacerbated by a curious VP choice. Though the Republicans ultimately tend to successfully rally around their nominee, McCain was not favored by his party's powerful conservative block.

Now, the Republicans are engaged in a potentially risky dance in order to maintain that family-values-moral-right face and get McCain elected all while dealing with Palin's family situation. Tuesday night's convention talk underscored the Republican strategy: Construct some distance between Palin's candidacy and her "personal" life and simultaneously create a sympathetic portrait of a family choosing the right to life and responding correctly to a sinful error with a shotgun marriage.

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