It’s the oldest political trope in the book. Kissing babies is like a public servant’s rite of passage. It’s simple. It’s endearing. It doesn’t really hurt anyone, though the babies involved never seem exactly thrilled to be handed over to complete strangers while lots of flashing camera lights go off. I suppose we shouldn’t ever be surprised to see children used as political props after considering just how long the baby kissing tradition has gone on. And yet, there’s been a level of child exploitation in the current election that seems to be more extreme and dishonest than anything I can remember.
Today, the Huffington Post unveiled a lengthy bit of investigative journalism linking Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney to increases in high schoolers smoking. The paper claims that while heading his consulting firm Bain Capital, Romney advised Phillip Morris on a strategy that included hooking thousands of young people on an addictive, unhealthy habit. They paint a picture of a ruthless moneymaker who didn’t care that children were being hurt in his quest for a profit margin.
That would be really damning if it were actually true. Except that Mitt Romney wasn’t involved with some type of marketing campaign that reached out directly to children. He didn’t come up with a cartoon talking animal to try and get kids to smoke cigarettes. His company advised one of their clients on a pricing strategy. Phillip Morris took their advice and their profits ended up growing. At the same time, teen smoking increased, but it did not happen as a result of some diabolical plan on the part of Romney.
Governor Romney is not the only one who has been the target of some serious allegations about harming our children. He leveled some against President Obama through political attack ads, a move that seems even more than serious since it was sanctioned by the campaign, not just popping up on an independent news organization. In fact, Romney’s campaign and the Super PACs that support him have used babies as political props to such an egregious extent that they got called out in a piece by the New York Times. It outlined how the GOP was attempting to use children as a way “to help Republicans chip away at the overwhelming support the president enjoys among women.”
Now, instead of kissing babies, political parties are trying to paint their opponents as hurting children. It’s a far more potent message, but it comes with a lot more collateral damage and emotional manipulation.
I’m not saying that children should never be part of the political conversation. Politics affects our families in a million different ways. Lots of mothers really do vote based on who we think will build a better world for our kids. I want a President who cares about education, who will protect my daughter’s reproductive choices, and who will guarantee her all the rights and privileges of any other citizen no matter who she chooses to love when she gets older. For me, those are political issues that directly relate to my daughter and they definitely influence the way I vote.
Really, every political issue we could discuss will effect the next generation, and can therefore be tied to our kids. That can make it difficult to chastise those who use our children to connect to us about our political positions. And yet, I think voters still need to be wary of anyone who wants to manipulate their emotions by using pictures of crying babies or images of smoking teens. I think that type of exploitation is unfair. It’s meant to cloud the issue, instead of helping you make an informed decision.
Whether it comes from an independent news source such as HuffPo or an actual campaign ad like Romney’s, the child political prop has gone negative, and it’s almost always distorting the truth. Voters beware.