The return of the Mommy vote

As the former page was exchanging suggestive comments with the 52-year-old Congressman on Instant Messenger, the boy suddenly wrote, “my mom is yelling.” He had to go do his homework, a book report for English class.

That’s it, right there. That’s why Americans are so outraged about the failure of the House Republican leadership to prevent Rep. Mark Foley from preying on the youngsters who work in the Capitol. These are kids. The adults who run Congress are supposed to protect them, not exploit them, and they failed miserably.

This is not just one more scandal about consenting adults behaving badly over money or sex, or one more untidy “mess” about “naughty e-mails,” as White House press spokesman Tony Snow so stupidly described it. This one has really touched a nerve among American parents, and that’s why it could jeopardize Republican control of the Congress this fall.

Sample the comments on the Web site of ABC, which broke the story, and you understand the passions that have been stirred up. “I’ve been a Republican all my life and so has been my family for generations,” wrote NRALover. “The GOP knew for years and did nothing to protect our children ... heaven forbid we leave these (expletive) in control any longer.”

It’s unlikely that NRALover or other devout Republicans will vote Democratic. But since some are already demoralized by rising deficits in Washington and body counts in Iraq, it is possible they will stay home, and that’s what has GOP strategists so alarmed. The church busses can be ready to roll on Election Day, but if nobody gets on board, Republicans lose a key advantage.

As Joe Gaylord, a long-time adviser to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, told The Washington Post: “The part that causes the greatest fallout is the obvious kind of pall that an incident like this would put on our hardest-core voters, who are evangelical Christians. ... This is one more nail in that coffin.”

Republicans, of all people, should have understood the volatility of this issue. They won the last two elections in large part because they convinced parents – particularly moms – that they would do a better of job of keeping their children safe. No issue engages the emotions of a mother more than the welfare of her kids.

In the off year elections of 2002, 53 percent of married moms backed Republicans.

In 2004, 56 percent of them supported President Bush. That’s why, overall, women favored John Kerry by only three points, a sharp drop from Bill Clinton’s edge of 16 points in 1996. And since Democrats can only win elections with a sizeable margin among female voters, the defection of the “mommy vote” sealed Kerry’s doom.

How the current uproar affects the “mommy vote” this year still has to play out, but two comparable episodes might offer some clues: Clinton dallying (after his re-election) with an intern, and Catholic priests seducing altar boys. Like the Foley affair, both scandals involved powerful, respected figures using their positions to extract sexual favors from young people under their supervision.

Sure, there was a difference, the priests preyed on vulnerable parishioners, while the president was tempted by a flirtatious adventurer. Still, Monica was a White House employee, and the president’s only proper response when she flashed her thong was, “Go home, put some clothes on.” The priests and the president both betrayed a basic trust. And then they both got caught in a cover-up.

That’s the second parallel to what’s happening today. Republican leaders – like church fathers and White House lawyers before them – thought they could ignore evidence, bury details, slap wrists, and hope the storm cloud would blow over. It didn’t then: Clinton was impeached, Al Gore lost, bishops were deposed, priests went to jail. And it won’t blow over now.

A final historical parallel: the Bush-Kerry race was shaken up by an unforeseen event that deeply affected mothers, the seizure of a school in the Russian city of Beslan that killed 330 people, including 186 children. Across America, moms watched the horrifying images and said to themselves, “that could be my school, those could be my kids.” And many of them went out and voted Republican.

What will those same moms think about this new scandal? Will they hold Republicans responsible for failing to keep their kids safe? If that’s their reaction, the “mommy vote” could swing the election to the Democrats.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at

Copyright 2006, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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