Opinion

Why Jeb Bush once thought it was cool to shame single moms

There's something very telling about focusing on sexual sin, and not, say, petty theft

For presidential candidates, 'tis the season of the oppo dump. Or perhaps the season of the background check, as campaigns feed unpleasant information about their opponents to reporters, and reporters take their own initiative to fill out a picture of who these candidates really are. Inevitably, the candidates wind up having to defend things they said or did in years past that from today's standpoint seem anachronistic or even appalling.

So it was with Jeb Bush, who turns out to have written a 1995 book called Profiles In Character that lamented the decline of public shaming as a tool of policymaking. While kids today have children out of wedlock because they don't fear society's scorn, he wrote, "Infamous shotgun weddings and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter are reminders that public condemnation of irresponsible sexual behavior has strong historical roots." That floozy Hester Prynne had it coming.

Perhaps in tune with the questionable reading comprehension he displayed as a high school sophomore, Bush did not object when his legislature passed a law requiring that pregnant women who wanted to put their babies up for adoption but were not sure of the father's identity had to publish a list of their sexual partners in the newspaper (he later signed a measure repealing it after it was struck down in the courts). Now that's some high-octane shaming.

Today, of course, Bush wouldn't propose any such thing, because even for Republicans, shame is out of style. A party desperately trying to figure out how it can appeal to young people (that hipster Republican ad campaign from a year ago didn't seem to work) isn't going to say that what America needs is a little less sexual freedom and a little more Church Lady. It's another example of the Republican Party's dilemma: It needs to appeal to a broad cross-section of Americans with contemporary values, but its base is dominated by older people whose values are "traditional."

If there's a saving grace to be found, it lies in the fact that we continuously cast off the parts of tradition we no longer find morally acceptable, which will eventually allow Republicans to get with the times. The people who today insist that they must condemn homosexuality because the Bible says so aren't advocating for the banning of shellfish or the execution of those who work on the Sabbath; those biblical edicts have been set aside as our values have moved past them, and so it shall (eventually) be with some if not all of the Bible's ideas about sexuality.

But the road between here and there is fraught with anxiety, particularly when it comes to the places where government policy meets personal liberty. Conservatives often have trouble grappling with the complexity that our constant evolution in values produces; for instance, in his book Bush also objects to the spread of no-fault divorce, which without question increased the country's divorce rate significantly. But it also freed millions of people from unhappy marriages, and how many of us would want to go back to the days when a couple would have to convince a judge that one of them had been abusive or committed adultery before the judge would allow them to split up? (Fun fact: The nation's first no-fault divorce law was signed by none other than California governor Ronald Reagan, who was himself divorced.)

Jeb Bush isn't the only candidate who has to adapt his candidacy to recent changes in values; Hillary Clinton too has struggled a bit to adequately describe the evolution that led her to support marriage equality when she used to oppose it. But while it would be a shock to see Bush advocate that we ought to be throwing rotten fruit at petty thieves held in stocks in the public square, his is still the party that treats women's sexuality as an object of fear and contempt. It's the one that wants to punish women seeking abortions with forced ultrasounds, the one that would let any business whose owners think contraception only gives license to harlots to exempt itself from laws on health insurance requirements.

So shame still has its uses, at least when it comes to certain frightening forces that must be contained. I suppose we can give the mid-1990s Jeb Bush credit for saying forthrightly that shame is an effective and moral tool for society to use against those who stray from the chaste and righteous path. Today's Bush says that he correctly diagnosed society's ills — but don't expect him to talk so explicitly about shaming anymore. Why? "My views have evolved over time."

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