The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mitt Romney’s lonely quest to make the GOP an actual pro-family party

(Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, more than a few antiabortion advocates were heard saying that now that they had achieved their decades-long goal, they should give some thought to helping all the women who will be forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, as though it were something they hadn’t bothered to think about before.

This brought to mind former Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank’s old joke that conservatives believe life begins at conception and ends at birth. Every fetus is a glorious gift from heaven who must be protected at all costs, but an actual child? You’re on your own, kid.

But not every Republican feels that way. Some want to back up their rhetoric about the importance of the family with real and substantial government support. Unfortunately, they’re having trouble finding many takers in their own party. “Pro-family” has its limits.

As The Post’s Jeff Stein and Leigh Ann Caldwell report, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has continued to pitch his colleagues on a proposal he introduced last year to give families with children monthly financial support, to no avail. A few Republicans have joined him, but the idea is mostly dismissed by the GOP.

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Romney’s idea isn’t that different from the enhanced child tax credit that was passed as part of pandemic relief and expired at the end of last year; most Democrats wanted to extend it, but Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) refused.

So if a bill expanding family support does pass anytime in the near future, it won’t be a Republican project. It will happen because all or nearly all Democrats wanted it, and a few Republicans, such as Romney, joined them.

There are all kinds of reasons a conservative might back such a policy: It promotes healthy children and family stability, and it could even make it possible for parents to stay home with the kids rather than work outside the home.

But if you want to know what Republicans really think about policies that would support families, all you have to do is look at the states where they’re in charge. Watch what they do, not what they say.

The results are awful. Republican-run states — the ones now rushing to outlaw abortion — have weaker support systems for pregnant women and parents; higher child poverty; and higher ratesof teen pregnancy, infant mortality and lack of health insurance.

Could that change now that Roe is gone and at least some Republicans are remembering what happens if you ban abortion? Will they embark on a broad effort to improve the lives of families? It doesn’t seem likely.

Here’s a lesson in how mass opinion translates to elite behavior: For lawmakers, inaction is easy, but action is hard.

Let’s say your party’s base would like you to do a particular thing. Not doing it might hurt you, but rather than producing a fierce backlash, your inaction will probably just make for vague dissatisfaction among your supporters. For instance, Democrats know their base favors a public option in health insurance and an assault weapons ban, but the fact that they haven’t managed to deliver on those items isn’t exactly a political emergency for them.

But putting something your base wants on the back burner is different from taking action that your base would genuinely dislike. That’s much more dangerous. And most Republicans probably guess that their base would not like a program that gives cash to parents and children. Why, that sounds like … socialism! Who knows what your next primary opponent would say about it?

Not all Republican voters would oppose an enhanced child tax credit; many could be happy to see more aggressive government support for families and children. But the party’s hardcore base — of whom all GOP officeholders live in fear — could be easily turned against the idea, especially since it resembles what Democrats support. So why run the risk?

Not only that, many elected Republicans simply don’t want to offer the kind of support Romney is proposing. Maybe it’s because they don’t care about women and children; when they say they’re “pro-family” what they mean is that they support a restoration of traditional gender hierarchies, not that they think every family should be given the means to flourish. Or maybe they care, but they’re so committed to the principle of small government that they can’t bear the thought of passing out money to people.

Mostly, they don’t see how it’s worth the political risk, especially when there are so many hot-button issues they can use to get their voters riled up, such as the possibility that a trans girl might want to play on her middle school softball team.

I wouldn’t want to discourage Romney and his small band of Republican compatriots; they should keep making the case inside their party for genuinely pro-family policies. But if those ideas are going to become law, it will be mostly because of Democrats.

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