First Ladies in Two Modes

With phrases like "commanding daddy of a candidate" and "shoulders you could land a 747 on," descriptions of the frontrunners for the 2008 Republican nomination have tended toward the cartoonishly masculine. And alongside that campaign is another, to elect the most suitable -- most feminine -- First Lady.

As Peggy Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal's opinion pages in August, Republican voters essentially want another Laura Bush. It is no longer in vogue for the First Lady to be only First Decorator; she must have causes -- gentle ones like literacy and heart disease -- but, Noonan warned, no political agenda. Publicly, a First Lady–hopeful should appear as serene as if she'd just popped a Xanax and downed a glass of wine. Republican consultant Frank Luntz recently told The New York Times, "The spouse of the candidate ... [is] not relevant. It will have no impact whatsoever."

It appears the Republicans intend to keep it that way. Ann Romney has declined to be interviewed for her own profiles, saying through a spokesperson that she "is not a political figure." And while it's rumored that Judi Giuliani and Jeri Thompson have significant behind-the-scenes influence, in public they're striving for the Laura Bush image as well. Republicans are acting like it's still 1950, and in failing to acknowledge that modern marriage is a partnership, they're missing out on what could be a winning campaign tactic.

The slow evolution of the First Lady has been mainly a Democratic experiment. Setting aside would-be "First Laddie" Bill Clinton -- who more than most First Mates must be careful not to overshadow his spouse -- the most prominent of the potential Democratic First Ladies is Elizabeth Edwards. She has consistently been one of the boldest parts of the campaign: taking on Ann Coulter's vitriol, defending the $400 haircut, and declaring that her husband would be the president for women. In a race in which Hillary Clinton has a natural advantage in connecting with a roomful of Democratic women, an appearance by Elizabeth Edwards helps her husband, the lone, white male top-tier candidate, to play the identity politics game, too.

But Elizabeth's role is not only as John in heels. On cultural issues, she plays to the ultra-liberal base while he, anticipating the general election, hews closer to the center. When John was asked recently about his beliefs on gay marriage, he answered that, due to his faith, he only supports civil unions. But he added a caveat: "My wife, Elizabeth, spoke out a few weeks ago, and she actually supports gay marriage." It was an addendum intended to inspire hope -- that he's open to discussing the issue, that Elizabeth might have some sway.

Michelle Obama is also embracing an overtly political role, though as yet she seems unsure just how political to be. Initially she seemed almost Republican in style, announcing that she was "scaling back" at her day job as a hospital executive in order to devote herself to the campaign, telling the press, "My job is not a senior adviser. I am here as a wife," and pledging not to interfere as First Lady in policy matters. But as profiles of the former hospital executive began to emerge, it became clear that she was conflicted about her decision to quit her job (she called the step "a bit disconcerting") in order to devote herself to her husband's work. More recently, on the trail in Iowa, she made headlines for delivering what commentators dubbed a "super-charged" version of her husband's stump speech. And it's been Michelle -- not Barack -- who has publicly expressed anger at questions of whether he is "black enough." Barack has responded with light-hearted humor, with mild frustration, with thoughtful questions. But he's certainly not enraged. That's been Michelle's territory.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the innovations of the first First-Lady-turned-presidential-candidate. Eleanor Roosevelt may have broken the mold, but the Clintons were the first to fully embrace the Democratic power-couple dynamic on the campaign trail. Early in the 1992 race, Hillary dared to declare, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession." The reams of bad press that ensued sent her scurrying back in time (she even submitted a cookie recipe for the bake-off with Barbara Bush). But Bill Clinton wasn't afraid to promise voters a "two for the price of one" presidency.

Once elected, the Clinton White House put Hillary in the line of fire on policy issues, sometimes to protect the president himself. It was she who fielded questions from the press about Whitewater in her first formal meeting with the media as First Lady. And it was she -- not he -- who was the public face of their daring health-care plan. (Now that the Clintons' roles are reversed, Hillary's campaign may wish that Bill had attached his own name to certain quotes and initiatives.) This is one way in which the First Partner model is of greater advantage than the Laura Bush model: It allows the candidate to appear centrist while the spouse tends to the base.

Republican candidates might consider embracing modern marriage, too. They could, for instance, seek a candidate married to an extreme right-winger, say, a board member of Concerned Women for America, or a former abortion-clinic protester, and use that First Lady as the public face of initiatives and viewpoints deemed too right-wing for a general election candidate. Or they could nominate a more centrist First Lady who would offset her husband's catering to the extremely conservative base.

But the Republicans won't be availing themselves of this strategy. Doing so would require them to promote a First Lady who was willing to assume "partner" status in politics -- something some conservative voters might not go for. Noonan described the conservative ideal: "She always telegraphs that she'd have been happy staying home, smoking cigarettes, and admiring her family. First Lady is an elevated title. We'd rather elevate someone who's making a sacrifice, not someone who's grabbing a rung."

That's a quaint way of looking at it. But this isn't the 1950s, and the women "staying home, smoking cigarettes, and admiring her family" are few and far between. One of these days, Republicans just might take notice.

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