Families Off Limits in Presidential Politics?
I think families are off limits. I would never consider making Cindy McCain a campaign issue, and if I saw people doing that — I would speak out against it. And the fact that I haven’t seen that from John McCain I think is a deep disappointment.
This is clever positioning on Obama’s part in that he simultaneously appears to be taking the high ground while seeking to illegitimate discussion of an issue that’s potentially more troublesome for himself than his opponent.
The fact of the matter is that the candidate’s spouse and close relations are “issues” that voters care about; that’s especially true at the presidential level. People disliked Nancy Reagan, loved Barbara Bush, were polarized over Hillary Clinton, and largely indifferent over Laura Bush.
While I think Gary Langer is largely right when he states that “popularity of presidential candidates’ spouses does not drive vote preferences,” voters use every clue they can to gauge the character of would-be presidents.
The more prominent the spouse or other family member is in the campaign, the more scrutiny they’re bound to receive. Hillary Clinton got more flak in 1992 than was theretofore the norm, not because she was “a strong woman” and the public resented her for it but because of the perception that it was “two for the price of one.” Thus far, Cindy McCain has received less attention than Michelle Obama because she’s largely stayed out of the spotlight while the other has made controversial remarks on the campaign trail.
Obama’s deflection game is nothing new, of course. He’s been telling opponents to lay off his wife for weeks. Republicans tried to make hay over the Kerry campaigns’ allusions to Mary Cheney’s lesbianism in the 2004 presidential debates. Democrats defended it by saying she was “fair game” because she was a grown woman actively campaigning for her father, which yielded another round of criticism.
The bottom line is that campaigns can make issues of what they want, their opponents can cry Foul all they want, and the voters get to decide what to do about the information. Absent something truly monumental coming out, it strikes me as unlikely that the election is going to be decided on the basis of spousal likability.