Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama seem to be in a contest over who can do the most damage to his or her spouse. Each reminds voters of the weaknesses of the respective candidates and gives their opponent’s supporters plenty of opportunities to say “Ah ha! See! Further evidence of . . .”
In the Clintons’ case, Bill is, of course, a walking, talking reminder that it is all about them. Their egos and their career ambitions take precedence over party and country. Self-discipline and restraint? Not from these two. And all those concerns about whether her experience is merely derivative are reignited every time voters hear the latest controversial or semi-controversial comment from him.
Michelle Obama has inadvertently emphasized the idea that she and her husband have lived a charmed and unappreciative life. They are “strapped,” but earn a six- or seven-figure income. Paying off college loans, which enabled them to go to an elite university and earn that massive income, is a burden almost too great to bear. Never feeling pride in a country in which she lived such a bountiful life suggests a lack of gratitude, if not of patriotism. We are left to wonder whether she, and in turn he, recognize the strengths and the greatness of the country he wants to lead.
One of the Democrats will win and face (with his/her spouse) the McCains. (In the category of little noticed advantages, McCain enjoys the support of an accomplished spouse who doesn’t do anything to embarrass him.) And while it may seem a trivial factor to consider, a spouse certainly can amplify or moderate a candidate’s shortcomings. Think Teresa Heinz Kerry– not exactly an asset for her husband as he tried to downplay his image as a Francophile snob.
The media, I have no doubt, will continue to obsess over whether gender, race or age matters more to voters. But a significant consideration–especially for those non-primary voting, apolitical “undecideds” we so feverishly study–may well be the person voters will have to imagine as First Spouse. After all, we’ll have to live with him or her for at least four years.