In 1994 — until now, the last year of American electoral revolution — I was asked to moderate a debate among candidates for Salt Lake County government offices. It's hard enough to come up with good questions to distinguish candidates for the office of county surveyor, but that year, it was easy for the Republican candidate to fall back on a slogan that was sweeping Democrats aside coast to coast.
He would, he said, return "Republican family values" to the surveyor's office.
Surveyors determine where property lines begin and end. That's all you need to know. We elect them because property boundaries, like anything that intersects money with government, are subject to political pressures. The office needs to be accountable directly to the people.
Surveying has as much to do with family values as it does to swimming or foreign policy. But if you wanted to get onboard the train in '94, "family values" was your ticket.
That ticket has now expired. When Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., announced last week that he had "sinned against God, my wife and my family" by having an extramarital affair, it caused barely a ripple on the political waters. Some observers were surprised he resigned his seat. Such dalliances don't necessarily spell defeat today. In fact, "family values" is rarely, if ever, heard in a campaign speech this year.
The ticket in 2010 seems to be "economic responsibility." That's a slogan that no one party can claim, as both have transgressed with pork-barrel spending and bailouts. The recent round of conventions, primaries and special elections, beginning with Utah's ouster of Sen. Robert Bennett, have shown that Americans at the moment are unimpressed by party strategy. The old adage that "he may be a bum, but he's our bum" is unthinkable for a mob using pitchforks to hunt those they believe to be bums.
So what do this year's voters really want? That seems to be the question of the hour, with no shortage of answers from pundits and experts.
Donna Brazile, a Democratic political strategist and the Democratic National Committee's vice chairwoman of voter registration and participation, wrote on nytimes.com that we are seeing less of an anti-incumbent movement than an anti-phony rebellion.
"The far right and far left are ascendant in both parties. The extremes of the spectrum made gains in each party's primaries against the 'all things to all people' incumbents," she wrote.
In the same Web post, historian Rick Shenkman of George Mason University put it this way: "It's not ideology that is driving politics now. There's not a hint of the culture wars in this year's votes. It's rebellion. It's the collective urge of both tea party supporters and mainstream conservatives and independents to break from the entrenched establishment."
Of course, as in all rebellions and revolutions, there is a vast difference between gaining power and governing. The surveying candidate of 16 years ago may have come to power touting family values, but ultimately he had to know how to survey property. In the end, those who emerge from this tumultuous year with power still have to govern effectively on a wide array of issues.
"Family values" always was a little difficult to nail down. The Contract with America, the blueprint that drove the '94 revolution, did it as well as anything. "The American family is at the very heart of our society," it said. "It is through the family that we learn values like responsibility, morality, commitment and faith." Then it outlined measures from cracking down on deadbeat parents to getting tough on child pornography.
But, of course, the leader of that movement, Newt Gingrich, fell short with an extramarital affair of his own.
That's a pity, because while fiscal responsibility certainly is needed today, it makes little sense to move the family off the political radar screen.