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Contentions

Personal Attacks and Political Wives

The heated debate about whether Ann Romney said “you people” during an interview yesterday (she didn’t) was an example of the sillier controversies that tend to engulf candidates’ wives. (For another example, see: Michelle Obama accused of spending $50,000 on lingerie).

But it’s strange how much partisan vitriol is actually channeled into these debates. Take Salon’s Joan Walsh’s enraged column on the Ann Romney “you people” remark that never actually happened:

Ann Romney is too well-bred to call African-Americans “you people” in public, of course, especially after what happened to Ross Perot. But she obviously has no problem referring to other folks she holds in contempt that way. Of course Romney has displayed contempt for certain African-Americans – like when she and her husband told the Obamas to “start packing,” because in Ann’s words, “It’s Mitt’s time. It’s our turn now,” to live in the White House. As if the Obamas were troublesome tenants who’d overstayed their welcome in the home that rightly belongs to the Romneys.

She displayed her plutocratic sense of entitlement when she proclaimed Hilary Rosen’s remarks about her stay-at-home-mom status “a birthday present.” Romney’s sincere reaction wasn’t outrage but opportunism; she enjoyed the sight of Rosen being grilled on a spit over a bipartisan open flame. Good to know it’s all about you, Ann.

So Walsh mishears one mundane line from Ann Romney, and takes it as evidence that she’s an elitist, plutocratic, entitled, narcissistic, opportunist? I wonder if Walsh’s criticism would have been so personal if Tim Pawlenty, Marco Rubio, or any of Romney’s other campaign surrogates had actually used the phrase “you people.”

This is the strange contradiction about candidates’ wives. Should they be viewed as members of the campaign, fair game for the same criticism and political attacks as any other staff? Or should they be viewed as extensions of the candidates’ personal lives, to be treated with respect and restraint? Melinda Henneberger touches on this in the Washington Post this morning:

I’ve routinely defended women in politics, spouses included, of course, from unfair attacks — from racist “jokes” involving Michelle Obama to trivial slams on Ann Romney’s designer T-shirt. But spouses are full partners in the current campaigns, strategically and every other way, just as they ought to be.

And at some point – right now would be my preference – we’ve got to stop pretending that they are by definition off-limits, or ought to be.

After all, Michelle Obama is heading up a new get-out-the-vote initiative — the “It Takes One” program to encourage grass-roots turnout efforts. She’s cutting ads, and as the Post’s Krissah Thompson wrote, taking on an “overtly political role that is rare for a first lady.”

Ann Romney, meanwhile, is raising money and giving a series of high-profile interviews — answering questions about possible veep choices by saying “we” haven’t made any decision yet.”

These women are leading the charge, not sitting home asking how it went, and as they stand on stage, microphones in hand, it’s absurd and even infantilizing to claim that they should be left alone.

Henneberger makes a good point. Candidates’ wives are often deemed “off-limits” for typical political attacks. And when they are criticized, it tends to be for petty issues and infused with a disproportionate amount of animosity. But these women are active on the campaigns, and it makes sense that they should be fair game. Of course, that would also mean toning down the personal attacks and viewing these women as political figures rather than extensions of the candidates.


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