Boston. -- The grown-ups are talking about the kids again, pinning their politics on the next generation.
All year long, the conservatives and the remaining liberals have fought their last-ditch battles as if they were in a custody dispute. In the scramble to stake out the higher moral ground in any debate, each has sworn that their policies are in the best interests of the next generation.
Every day now, some leader insists that the budget should be balanced because, as Newt Gingrich said last weekend, "We owe it to our children and grandchildren." Others trying to protect the programs on the congressional chopping block are saying, "We can't balance the budget on the backs of our children."
The kids have become the reason we should be for or against welfare reform. They've become the reason we should be for or against government regulations. The reason why we should dump or support everything from public television to environmental laws to defense funding.
In the argument about regulating meat, it isn't the adults who have provided the photo-ops of E. coli victims. In the argument about slashing arts funding, Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York talked about "the children in every nook and cranny in the United States who will not have any opportunity to develop who they are."
Well, in any custody fight, I worry that the parents are more interested in winning and wounding each other than in helping the kids. That is especially true right now during furious arguments about how we'll spend and save money. If patriotism is the last resort of the scoundrel, talking about children can be the last hiding place of skulduggery.
It's not a coincidence that "children" have become the buzzword of left, right and center. Wherever we sit on the political spectrum, the language resonates.
We have come to share a guilty unease about children. The generic worry that the next generation of Americans will not be as well off as their parents, has settled down around us like a heavy fog. It's hard to see any distance ahead.
There is, after all, a sadness in any society that no longer believes it's making life better for its children. That may be especially true in a nation built by immigrants, people who, by and large, chose opportunity over continuity, the future over the past, their children over their ancestors.
The baby-boom generation was an anomaly, a blip on the demographic landscape, a boom time that we didn't suspect would bust, or even slide. Boomers now look back at their own childhoods with nostalgia and at their children's with concern.
That worry takes many forms: latchkeys, drugs, schools, TV. Our kids are less vulnerable to such plagues as polio and more vulnerable to violence and to the forces that no V-chip or childproof software can totally block.
We have finally realized that we haven't behaved like responsible grown-ups. In the '80s we ran up the debt, buying Cold War weapons and giving tax cuts to the rich. We did it while the schools ran down, the poor grew poorer, and the environment became a paler shade of green.
We've acted rather like the drivers with those cheery bumper stickers proclaiming that they're spending their children's inheritance. We haven't been stewards of our children's world.
I wish we were judging every policy through the long-distance lens, putting a kid-grid over each piece of legislation. A wise jury of elders judges the actions of one generation by its effect on the next. But in this custody dispute, where one side claims that we will balance the budget, for the kids, and the other side protests cuts, for the kids, the choices have a false, childish ring.
No good parent wants to leave children in debt. But no Congress that -- for starters -- gives the Pentagon more money than it asks for, has the right to cut the children's allowance and say that it's for their own good.
"Children First" is not a policy, it's a slogan, the verbal equivalent of kissing babies. In these rushed days of Congress, make sure you know when they're kissing the kids and when they're kissing them off.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.