Presidential candidates and parenting double-standards

Well, when a friend linked to a blog post about the double standard for presidential candidates of special needs kids, boy was I excited.  In this case, PunditMom compares media/elite treatment of Sarah Palin to Rick Santorum:

What’s the difference between being a political mom and a political dad?  Ask Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum.

When Sarah Palin ran for vice president in 2008, she drew fire for more than just her views on the economy and reproductive rights.  At the time John McCain chose her to be his running mate, her son Trig, who was born with Down Syndrome, was only a few months old.  She faced severe criticism from all sides about whether she was being a neglectful mother by taking on the 24/7 commitments of a national campaign, which included the possibility of becoming the first woman vice president of the United States…

Fast forward a few years to the current campaign season where one GOP presidential contender also has a young special needs child.  This time that candidate is a dad.  The public response to Rick Santorum, the father of a special needs daughter, and his decision to run for president has been a whole heck of a lot different from the one Palin received.

Santorum speaks often about his youngest daughter Isabella, who is three-and-a-half years old and has a genetic disorder called Trisomy 18.  Half of all children born with Trisomy 18 die at birth and few live much longer than a year, so his daughter’s story is an exceptional one…

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, no one is suggesting that Santorum is being a bad father for choosing the rigors of a presidential campaign over the demands of taking part in the daily care of a special needs child.  No one is questioning whether he ought to be in the race at all nor is anyone suggesting that he’s a neglectful parent, as people did with Palin.  In fact, much of the media coverage of his daughter has focused on how Santorum says Bella’s condition has been a motivating factor for him to pursue the presidency.

Alas, I was disappointed.  For one, Sarah Palin was a major national political figure who was the actual vice-presidential nominee.  Nobody is saying much of anything at all about Rick Santorum.  Is he even over 2% in the polls?  I still think Bamberger has a good point in here, but since this is an apples to rutabagas comparison, it way oversells it.  To discuss the “severe criticism” of Palin and then only be able to link to a People magazine interview that includes one question on it (that surely would have been asked whether Trig was special needs or not) and than to link to a blog I’ve never heard of, does not exactly suggest that this was a major (even modest) theme of Palin coverage.  Show me the NYT Op-Ed link, and I’ll feel a little more convinced.

On the Santorum issue, maybe I should encourage her to link back here because I’ll go ahead and criticize Santorum for running under the circumstances.  If Bella’s needs are truly as demanding as implied, damn straight no parent– mom or dad– should be undertaking the rigors of running for president under the circumstances.  Especially if they have no chance and it could thus be considered a vanity campaign.  So,there’s your Santorum criticism.

Honestly, I’ve always felt like, yes, women do get criticized for these issues too much, but men, not enough. I absolutely cannot imagine leaving behind a young child (heck, or even a teenager) to leave my family to go serve a political job far away.  I always point out to my Gender & Politics class that I thought it was really telling that back when John Kasich was a powerful congressman it was treated as just a fun political story that he had twins while in office.   You know that so would not have been the case if he were a woman.  I would’ve been just fine with Kasich coming in for a little criticism.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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