The Magazine


Dec 15, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 14 • By DANIELLE CRITTENDEN and DAVID FRUM
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Feminist bookstores sell T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, "What part of No don't you understand?" It's a question that might fairly be asked of President Clinton. A majority of Americans have made unmistakably clear their aversion to government-controlled child care. But this aversion has not impressed daycare advocates in the least. A quarter of a century ago, President Nixon vetoed the first of their plans to thrust millions of children into the care of the same sort of people who run the public schools. Seven years ago, President Bush and the Republicans in Congress beat back the latest institutional daycare scheme. Undaunted, the president and the first lady are now ready to try once more. The question is: This time, will Republicans' nerves fail them?

Over the past few months, Bill and Hillary Clinton have prepared the country for the announcement of a big government daycare initiative in January's State of the Union address. "People have to be able to succeed at work and at home in raising their children," the president told the White House Conference on Child Care this fall, which brought together 100 experts, most of them advocates of institutional daycare. "And if we put people in the position of having to choose one over the other, our country is going to be profoundly weakened."

But of course putting people in a position where they are pressured to choose work over parenthood is exactly what the president and the first lady intend to do. And despite the ideological euphemism that pretends that child-rearing impinges equally on men and women, "people" in this case of course means mothers. The public policy of the United States already piles economic burdens on women who opt to care for their own children. The president's plan would pile on some more. By attempting to convince Americans that a daycare center offers an adequate substitute for maternal care, the president and the first lady are only intensifying the powerful cultural messages that scorn in-person motherhood.

Early reports of the Clintons' legislative plans reveal a determination to subsidize and encourage daycare from the earliest weeks of infancy. Already, as the Cato Institute reminds us, federal, state, and local governments pay 40 percent of the cost of child care. The administration seeks to go even further: It is expected to ask Congress to approve a series of initiatives- federal subsidies, tax incentives -- that would encourage women to place their babies and toddlers in daycare. The Republicans will be tempted to split the difference -- to approve the tax incentives and vote down the subsidies -- while avoiding all debate over first principles. But isn't the formation of the character of the next generation of citizens an important enough problem to merit a debate over first principles? We can all agree that America is suffering from a child-care crisis. But what is this crisis: Is it that children spend too little time in the care of strangers? Or too much?

You can learn a lot from outbursts of mass hysteria. Repeatedly over the past decade, the country has been shocked by accusations of the most bizarre and atrocious child abuse at daycare centers: from the McMartin pre-school in southern California to the Amirault case in Massachusetts to the Little Rascals case in North Carolina, and many more besides. District attorneys, judges, child-welfare workers, and dozens of pairs of parents persuaded themselves -- despite a near total absence of evidence -- that children had been sodomized, tortured, and abused in satanic rituals. How could so many people have fallen for such manifestly implausible stories? The answer is that guilt is a powerful and insidious emotion.

Tell parents that their child is miserable in daycare because he wants to be at home with Mom, and they will block their ears. That explanation of their child's unhappiness reflects badly on them. But tell them that their child is miserable because a satanic lunatic is raping him with a broom handle, and all the guilt and anxiety that they have been suppressing will explode in a cathartic outburst.