Are Political Spouses Fair Game?

We have barely established the nominees for the presidential general election battle, but the ground rules are very much up in the air. Not for the candidates, mind you, but for their wives.The Tennessee state GOP recently ran an ad quoting Michelle Obama's oft-quoted comment that she had never been proud of America until her husband's campaign. Barack Obama struck back, declaring such a tactic was "low" and "detestable" and everyone should just "lay off" his wife.

When Tennessee's Republican Senator Bob Corker took Obama's side and called for the ad to come down some conservatives took exception. Michelle Malkin wrote:

Is it "negative personal campaigning" when candidate spouse Bill Clinton's public campaign trail remarks are scrutinized, criticized, and analyzed? Are we to shut up about him, too? Will the Republican civility-mongers not stop until the Right is completely disarmed?

Indeed it would seem odd that Obama could claim the benefit of his wife as spokeswoman, surrogate and explainer-in-chief of his personal charms, yet plead that she be exempt from scrutiny. Moreover, we seemed to be entering an Alice in Wonderland of rules since the DNC had just recently criticized Cindy McCain for refusal to release her tax returns (a position shared in more restrained terms by the National Review's editors).

So what to make of all this? Neither of the presumptive nominees offers "two for the price of one" as Bill Clinton did, and yet wives have become fixtures on the stump. It is not always obvious what is fair game with regard to spouse scrutiny and what is not.

Todd Harris, political consultant and former Fred Thompson Communications Director says: "You walk a very fine line when you start using a candidate's spouse as a surrogate for the candidate. On the one hand, it's always been an article of faith that spouses are and should be off limits. But when a campaign starts using the spouse to carry very political, and often negative, messages, that lines really start to get blurred."

And blurred they have become with Michelle Obama. Her comments about her pride (or lack thereof )in America, her view of her husband's historic impact on the country and her complaints about their finances have all been much discussed. What they reveal, or confirm, Obama's critics say, is an elitist, out-of -touch mindset and an arrogance about themselves and her husband's achievements.

In other words, she simply gave unfavorable testimony about her spouse, testimony the opposing side feels free to use.

Ah, but the Obama defenders say, Michelle isn't Barack and he doesn't feel that way so why "drag" her into this? Well if the person closest to the candidate does not represent his views, either one of them is always free to pipe up and explain the differences. (Barbara Bush, for example, made clear she was pro-choice, but that this was her own view.)

And yes, it's true she said these things not him, but the remarks did, after all, fit a pattern which the candidate established. Weren't his Bittergate remarks belittling the values and views of average Americans of the same type as Michelle's denigration of American greatness and her remark that America is mean? In short, had she not embellished on the themes already laid out by her husband her remarks might not have attracted great attention.

So especially with a candidate new on the political scene, about whom relatively little was known before the campaign, it seems reasonable to use a spouse's comments as insight into the candidate's views.

Well, the argument goes, why should we get in the middle of a husband-wife relationship and "force" a candidate to criticize his own spouse or distance himself from her remarks? There is an easy solution to that one: if you fear confusion or don't want your spouse speaking for you, then don't have her speak for you. Alternatively she can always preface her remarks with "My husband doesn't agree with me on this." Otherwise, it is not only fair, but logical, to assume that she is speaking for and about him.

So have we come full circle and declared nothing off limits? Before pangs of guilt overtake us for the invasion of spouses' "privacy," it is important to remember that spouses act not only as surrogates but in many cases as advisors on everything from strategy to health policy. If Charlie Black's lobbying past gets front page coverage by the New York Times shouldn't we have the right to explore Michelle Obama's views, associations and finances also?

Larry J. Sabato offers some middle ground. He explains: "First ladies have enormous influence on their husband-Presidents, and so their real views matter. On the other hand they are not candidates. An in-between standard applies. The more involved in policy they are, the more intense the coverage should be."

In the case of the Clintons this time around an obvious concern for voters was "What's he going to do?" When the spouse is himself a political figure with policy expertise it is hard to complain about whatever scrutiny comes his way.

And in the end the public opinion will determine when a campaign goes too far or when the spouse seems to be taking the fall for what should be barbs directed at her spouse. Harris explains, "I think the public's level of outrage over spousal criticism will be in direct proportion to how political the spouse is. For example, Elizabeth Edwards is extremely political and the public would probably view her as fair game. But God help the person who ever tries to take shots at Laura Bush because the public would never stand for it."

So the bottom line: if you don't want your spouse scrutinized, don't employ her as a key surrogate or make clear she is a top advisor. And if you don't want her criticized, then suggest she not defame the country or cry crocodile tears over how to meet expenses on a seven-figure income. Then everyone would agree to "lay off" the wife.

PJM's special DC correspondent Jennifer Rubin is a writer living in Virginia. She is a regular contributor to Human Events, American Spectator and the New York Observer and blogs at Commentary’s Contentions.