Jilted

Long inveighing against the “extremist” views of what he has dubbed the “we hate marriage” left, Horn spoke the language of the religious right and was a strident proponent of traditional marriage as the cornerstone of a moral society and the best strategy for lifting single mothers and their children out of poverty.

For five years, Horn had trumpeted the superiority of the married, two-parent family in a weekly syndicated column for the conservative Washington Times, “Fatherly Advice,” in which he put forth his views on everything from cohabitation (“the most dangerous place for women and children”) to gender-neutral parenting (“trying to make little boys into little girls not only doesn’t work, it enrages little boys”). Horn also used his column to come to the defense of the Southern Baptist Convention, which in 1998 had proclaimed that a wife should “submit” to her husband’s “servant leadership” and serve as his “helper.” While women’s groups expressed outrage, Horn quoted from the New Testament that “the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the Church” and explained that while Dad may be the boss, true “servant-leadership” is humble and self-sacrificing.

In a 1997 article for the conservative Hudson Institute, Horn proposed increasing the marriage rate in poor communities by denying single parents and their children access to certain welfare benefits such as Head Start and public housing until all married, two-parent families had been served. And just last summer, Horn wrote in a Brookings Review article that Congress should “use the upcoming reauthorization to require states to build support for marriage into their welfare reform efforts.”

Given his gold-star conservative background, Horn’s nomination seemed to signal that the administration would push for the social conservative agenda, which includes a call for devoting 10 percent of the entire federal welfare budget—$1.5 billion—to marriage-promotion programs, and mandating that all states implement them.

Of course, Horn’s selection infuriated liberal groups as much as it pleased conservatives. Feminists dubbed him the “marriage czar” and took issue with his opposition to no-fault divorce and particularly his views in the Hudson Institute article. Before his confirmation hearing last June, they were brewing for a fight, but just weeks before the hearing, Horn did a Clarence Thomas and renounced the Hudson Institute policy.He sailed through the Senate in 10 minutes.

After the hearing, Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, told reporters that she suspected that Horn’s change of heart was due only to his desire to avoid a messy confirmation fight. As it’s turned out, though, Horn’s conversion may have been a real one—or at least a necessary one if he is to keep his job in the administration.

Since assuming the post nine months ago, the marriage czar has become distinctly less imperious. No longer does Horn call for government marriage mandates or deliver impassioned lectures about the selfishness of divorce and the social chaos caused by single motherhood. Instead, he offers up moderate stump speeches supporting the administration’s modest marriage initiative and calls for deference to state government.

This more moderate stance hasn’t succeeded in quieting liberal opposition to the administration’s plans for welfare reform, but it has managed to anger the very social conservatives that Horn’s appointment was supposed to appease. According to the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector, “The federal government spends a thousand dollars subsidizing single parenthood for every dollar it spends promoting marriage. If the Bush administration continues to support this state of affairs, conservatives will revolt.”

Horn’s accommodating stance on the marriage issue is emblematic of the delicate dance the Bush administration must do to satisfy two very different wings of its party—one that wants to see the government take a bigger role in moral and personal affairs, and another that espouses limited government and lower taxes. Significantly, the latter view is represented by Horn’s boss, HHS secretary and former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson. As one of the pioneers in the welfare reform movement at the state level, Thompson has little interest in telling the states what to do.(Bush, as a Christian conservative and a former governor, has a foot in each camp.)

As Congress heads into negotiations over reauthorization of the six-year-old welfare reform act, which will expire at the end of the summer, liberals will undoubtedly tussle with the administration. But in the end, the real fight over welfare reform promises to be an inter-necine war between the two competing factions of the Rep-ublican Party, with Wade Horn at its center.

While Bush clearly nominated Horn to placate his always-jumpy fundamentalist base, the decision was a cagey one. Bush seems to have anticipated the treacherous waters Horn would be navigating as the head of an agency responsible for such programs as welfare, Head Start, and child support enforcement. Despite some of his more radical writing, Horn may have been a sheep in wolf’s clothing all along—the pragmatist who can put aside his rhetoric for the sake of political expediency.

Jim Levine of the progressive Institute for Fathers and Families puts it this way: “Horn is less of an ideologue than [former NFI head David Blankenhorn], but he can play that role, often for pragmatic reasons and very skillfully. I’ve seen him in many guises, and he’s very skillful in being able to adapt his rhetoric to fit the political occasion.”

In person, Horn conveys none of the attack-dog persona he developed at NFI. A balding baby boomer in the style of Eric Camden, the God-fearing but sensitive minister on the family television show “Seventh Heaven,” Horn comes off as serious but relaxed. Like Camden, he talks lightly about his love of the electric guitar and worries whether his two teenage daughters will be able to find good husbands.

A 47-year-old Lutheran clinical child psychologist, Horn came relatively late to politics. He was born in Coral Gables, Florida, one of seven children, and raised in Bridgewater, New Jersey. After graduating from American University in Washington, D.C. in 1975, he married his college sweetheart, completed a Ph.D. at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, and began a career in research, focusing initially on learning disabilities.

In 1986, Horn moved back to Washington, where he became the director of outpatient psychological services at Children’s Hospital National Medical Center. It was here, after seeing firsthand the effects of absent fathers on children, that Horn began to develop his strong political feelings about marriage and fatherhood.A bout with cancer as a young father also led him to focus on his family responsibilities in a way he hadn’t before, and heightened his political passion for family issues. In 1988, Horn, then just 34, joined George H.W. Bush’s transition team and eventually served as commissioner of the Admin- istration for Children, Youth and Families, where he was responsible for Head Start, adoption assistance, and anti-gang programs, among others.

Horn became more outspoken after he left the administration and helped found the nation’s fatherhood movement, which called for restoring the traditional family and promoted the view that children do best when raised by their married, biological parents. At NFI, which was financed by the ultra-right Scaife foundation, he helped orchestrate public service ads about the “devastating” effects of single mothers raising boys alone—a phenomenon that Horn has said causes everything from “wilding” in Central Park to the Columbine massacre.

But having been a loyal Bush follower during the first administration, Horn understood the compromises necessary for working inside government. Soft-spoken, earnest, and given to long, nuanced answers to policy questions, he rarely departs from the officially-sanctioned administration script, particularly on welfare reform.By November, Horn was refusing to comment on the marriage mandate, saying that he wouldn’t want to unduly influence the states’ decisions. By January, he told me that, “Everything I know of that I’ve said or written” only supports a requirement for states to say what, if anything, they plan to do to encourage marriage. Apparently overlooking his Brookings piece of last summer, Horn now says that if the states want to do nothing, that’s just fine with him.

Since his confirmation, Horn has been remarkably consistent on this point, despite feminists’ early suspicions. When I first interviewed Horn last fall in his corner office in downtown D.C., he was in the midst of a “listening tour” of the states in preparation for the upcoming reauthorization of welfare reform. Despite the “listening-tour” label, the meetings were closed to the public and consisted primarily of state welfare officials and a few hand-picked welfare recipients. Given this orchestration, the tour would have been a perfect time for Horn to stump for a federal marriage mandate.Instead, he just listened—and fended off attacks from welfare activists who had been excluded from the meetings, including some 100 welfare recipients and their advocates who staged a protest at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in San Francisco.

Even when speaking to his base, Horn has not “gone off the reservation.” At a Heritage Foundation seminar in January on “Saving Marriage: The Foundation of American Society,” he maintained the famous Bush administration discipline. Flanked by self-help guru Stephen Covey lecturing on “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families” and Heritage’s Rector, Horn continued to toe the moderate line, emphasizing that the government should promote healthy and smart marriages, promote premarital education and support marital intervention services. Not once did he return to his proposal of just last summer to make marriage promotion a federal mandate.

Before the landmark 1996 welfare reform act, welfare policy was made at HHS, which has traditionally been the province of Christian conservative political appointees during Republican administrations. But party activists seem to have forgotten that welfare reform devolved most of the responsibility for welfare to the states in the form of block grants. As a result, any changes in welfare, such as a marriage mandate, would have to get past another powerful wing of the Republican Party: the states’-rights promoters, represented by the predominantly Republican National Governors Association. Officially, the governors have approached the marriage subject delicately, not wanting to alienate the Christian right. They claim to support worthy goals of family formation, etc., but their official stance on the marriage mandate pushed by Heritage and others makes their bottom line clear.

“Governors would oppose any effort to establish set-asides or further restrictions on the use of [welfare] funds … Any added emphasis the federal government places on a specific area of [welfare] spending, such as family formation, fatherhood, or poverty reduction, should come in the form of additional federal spending for state demonstration projects that can be rigorously evaluated,” reads the NGA’s official policy on the issue.

The governors’ apprehension about the marriage mandate is even more evident in their use of the federal welfare block grant to date. When the block grant was created six years ago, it came with three goals: moving welfare mothers into jobs, reducing out-of-wedlock births, and promoting marriage.To date, however, only Oklahoma and Arizona have implemented any kind of marriage promotion programs, and they are far from the comprehensive models social conservatives are seeking. “States have scoffed at these goals,” says Rector. “Conservatives have this myth that state welfare bureaus are fountains of cutting-edge innovation and they are exactly the opposite.”

That’s why social conservatives want Washington to force states to promote marriage—because the states won’t do it on their own (and probably for good reason, given that there’s not much evidence such programs actually work). But so far, the administration, acting through Horn, has refused to give them what they want, a sign that the governors are winning the battle.

In February, the Bush administration proposed to spend $100 million a year—far less than the $1.5 billion than Christian conservatives had hoped for—to encourage marriage among low-income people, and even these funds may be used for other purposes.(Later, the administration announced that another $100 million would be made available, but only if states came up with dollar-for-dollar matching funds.) The money would finance demonstration projects in pro-marriage education, premarital counseling and relationship skills training. But most importantly from the administration’s perspective, states would be free, but not forced, to apply for the marriage-promotion money—a position that Horn says he supports wholeheartedly.

While the governors may be happy about this trend, social conservatives are less enthused. So far, their leadership is reluctant to publicly denounce Horn for selling out. But as Rector put it in January, “To say we ought to leave this in the hands of the states is an insult to anyone who believes in the importance of marriage in our society. If the states want full discretion over how welfare is run, they should pay for it.”

Not only are conservatives unhappy with the lack of a federal mandate, but they believe Bush has shortchanged marriage in the budget.Peter Brandt, of Focus on the Family, says that his group is unhappy because the money for marriage promotion was made available only by ending another welfare program that granted bonuses to states where rates of out-of-wedlock births declined. “There was no additional net new money to promote marriage,” he says. “The administration just rearranged the same number of chips.”

Having Horn at the helm of the welfare administration has helped defuse some of this criticism from the right, but it hasn’t stopped it, and the griping seems to have gotten the administration’s attention recently. In late March, the administration dispatched Bush strategist Karl Rove to a meeting of the Family Research Council, the influential Christian political group, to reassure supporters that the administration had not abandoned their goals. According to The Washington Post, Rove told the group of 250 political activists from around the country that, “There’ll be some times you in this room and we over at the White House will find ourselves in agreement, and there’ll be the occasion when we don’t. But we will share a heck of a lot more in common than we don’t. And we’ll win if we work together far more often than the other side wants us to.”

For Horn’s part, he claims that all is well on the ranch.”So far, I’ve heard nothing but positive reaction to our marriage proposals from pro-family, conservative groups,” he claims. But outside observers who’ve been involved in negotiations with the White House and Congress over welfare reauthorization believe that public unanimity will not last long. Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and one of the architects of the present welfare law, predicts that the marriage issue is going to provoke a serious fight in Congress over the summer. And he says, “It’s going to be ugly.”

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation