USA Today, May 23, 2012
What about the 'war on kids'?
Much has been made of GOP assaults on terror and on women, but children
are also targets of subtle and troubling attacks.
By Bruce Kluger
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.”
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.
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-
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
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.