WASHINGTON -- They speak of frazzled parents stuck in rush-hour traffic, grandparents shunted off to the old folks home, children adrift in an amoral sea.
Politicians of both parties are in full cry about the state of the family."Polls show that a majority of Americans think that getting kids off to the right start should be our No. 1 national priority," said Democrat Bill Bradley, who like almost everyone else running for president has raised family values forcefully.
"Politicians like to talk about children," he says. "Just throw in a mention of children and you get an applause line."
Still, more is at work than the verbal equivalent of kissing babies.
The House voted this week to let schools post the Ten Commandments in what the bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama, called a first step to "promote morality" and stop "children killing children" after the Colorado school shootings.
The family is explicitly at the core of the two campaigns begun this week, those of Democratic Vice President Al Gore ("We must make family life work in America") and Republican Gov. George W. Bush, the "compassionate conservative" who declares "Some people think it's inappropriate to draw a moral line. Not me."
Republican Lamar Alexander, calling child-rearing his overarching theme, declares: "Families are broken. We've gotten busy. And we're not taking care of the kids."
Bradley asserts "our children are becoming a blur. . . . It's not supposed to be this hard."
The family values theme of prior elections has turned into an all-out race to capitalize on people's feelings of inadequacy about the moral authority in their lives. It's not about putting a chicken in every pot, but letting values flourish in every home.
Members of Congress and presidential candidates alike advocate more parental responsibility. Yet families are also getting the message that what has happened is not their fault.
Generally, Republicans say taxes are so high and stacked against married couples that people must work too many hours to get by. Democrats say laws are needed to bypass inflexible employers and give parents the right to stay with an ill child or attend important school meetings.
"I don't think the public believes either party when it says we're going to solve this," says theologian Martin E. Marty at the University of Chicago. But he thinks people are glad it's on the agenda.
Marty is most struck that Democrats now feel compelled to talk about the traditional family. After years of easy divorce, the growth of single-parent families and the loss of familiar neighborhoods and organizations, the impulse to hold on to remaining old values crosses ideology, he says.
"Today when everything else has collapsed you try to shore up what is only eroded," he said. "That Gore is doing this is neither providing leadership nor dragging his feet. He's part of a force that is out there."
A recent Gallup Poll found the decline of family to be the top worry, followed closely by crime. But experts are divided on whether Americans in fact have less free time.
A new study by the Council of Economic Advisers found families are spending an average of 22 fewer hours per week away from the job than they did 30 years ago. But other studies have found that time actually spent with children has remained fairly steady.
Politicians are doing "a lot of running around but not with a lot of information," says John P. Robinson, head of a 30-year research project at the University of Maryland on the use of time.
For months now Gore has been promoting a "livability agenda" addressing time parents spend with children, traffic congestion and even the dispiriting vision of strip malls.
"These are our deficits now," he said in his campaign kickoff speech, "the time deficit in family life, the decency deficit in our common culture, the care deficit for our little ones and our elderly parents."
Yet the central prescriptions in a variety of presidential campaigns, including Gore's and Bush's, concern schools, preschools, and after-school care, steps that bow to the reality of two-income families and long hours apart.
"The market has simply won," Marty said, gazing outside his downtown Chicago office at shoppers flocking into pricey stores.
"The price of the market winning is, I see about every third person walking along with a cell phone. And they'll be doing that on Saturday.
"Mom and dad are never quite off work."