Families Off Limits in Presidential Politics?

Taegan Goddard gives Quote of the Day honors to Barack Obama for this:

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.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004, Campaign 2008, LGBTQ Issues, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    Translation: Obama doesn’t want to be forced to toss his wife under the bus.

  2. DavidL says:

    If Barack Obama wants spouses to be off-limits, he better tell his paid employee, Howard Dean, to shut-up about Cindy McCain. As usual BO says one thing, while his campaign does another. Is this a preview of BO’s executive ability, or lack thereof same?

  3. Stephanie says:

    John McCain has a lot more to worry about in regards to scrutiny of his second wife. Cindy had an affair and married a married man with children (John- and NO, they were not separated at the time of the affair), stole drugs from her own charity, which put her employees at risk in the process, and had a role in the Keating Five affair. She even steals recipes, lol! Clearly, the woman has NO morals! Why isn’t the mainstream press talking about this?

  4. Hal says:

    I guess calling your own wife a C*NT acceptable in today’s republican party and not really much of a problem compared to what Obama would have to deal with wrt Michelle.


    Bleeped video for the tender ears

  5. Bithead says:

    I guess calling your own wife a C*NT acceptable in today’s republican party

    Has it been so long since the Billary show was on every night, that you’ve forgotten, or must one chuck ashtrays and lamps to get your attention, Hal?

  6. Hal says:

    must one chuck ashtrays and lamps to get your attention, Hal?

    That’s pretty much all you seem to do. I’d ask you for some backup as to where Bill called Hillary a similar name or Hillary did much the same to Bill, but we both know that your MO is to simply fling ashtrays and consider that to be discourse.

  7. Hal says:

    And perhaps you haven’t noticed yet, but Hillary ain’t on the ticket.


  8. Ari Herzog says:

    I agree that family members should not be campaign issues. However, the husband/wife of a presidential candidate is fair game if for one reason: The First Lady of the United States is more than a title.

    She may not receive a salary but she has a salaried staff; and that is something worthy of being in the public sphere. If not discussed during the campaign, then when?

  9. Bithead says:

    And perhaps you haven’t noticed yet, but Hillary ain’t on the ticket.

    Who is and is not on the ticket is’t the issue, and you know it. What IS at issue is your obvious and glaring double standards.

    So, let’s dig just a little.
    — “What are you doing inviting these people into my home? These people are our enemies! They are trying to destroy us!” -Hillary screaming to an aide, when she found out that some Republicans had been invited to the Clinton White House.

    — “Son of a b*tch!” -Hillary’s opinion of President George W. Bush when she found out he secretly visited Iraq on Thanksgiving just days before her trip in 2003.

    — “Where is the G-damn f**king flag? I want the G-damn f**king flag up every f**king morning at f**king sunrise.” -Hillary to the staff at the Arkansas governor’s mansion on Labor Day, 1991.

    — “You sold out, you mother f**ker! You sold out!” -Hillary yelling at a Democratic lawyer.

    — “F**k off! It’s enough that I have to see you shit-kickers every day, I’m not going to talk to you too! Just do your G*damn job and keep your mouth shut.” -Hillary to her State Trooper bodyguards after one of them greeted her with “Good morning.”

    — “If you want to remain on this detail, get your f**king ass over here and grab those bags!” -Hillary to a Secret Service agent who was reluctant to carry her luggage because he wanted to keep his hands free in case of an incident.

    — “Get f**ked! Get the f**k out of my way! Get out of my face!” -Hillary’s comments to her Secret Service detail agents.

    — “Stay the f**k back, stay the f**k away from me! Don’t come within 10 yards of me, or else! Just f**king do as I say, Okay!” -Hillary screaming at her Secret Service detail.

    But more about her and Bill, a couple shots, here:

    * 1993; Hillary went after Bill with her fingernails, leaving a “mean claw mark along his jawline.” White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers later explained that Hillary’s vicious attack had been provoked by singer Barbra Streisand’s visit to the White House.

    * August 13, 1999, after Bill’s confession of the Monica Lewinsky affair. According to author Christopher Andersen, “Hillary rose to her feet and slapped him across the face–hard enough to leave a red mark that would be clearly visible to Secret Service agents when he left the room.”

    * There are the accounts of Hillary hurling ashtrays, lamps, and books, and once leaving a mark on Bubba’s face that required make-up. On one occasion Bill implored his Secret Service agent, “Keep that b*tch away from me!” The First Lady’s press secretary subsequently declined to deny these accounts.

    Let’s see, now… she hit his nose with an ashtay while calling him a what, again?

    This stuff is well documented. Yet, what do you focus on, with far less documentation?

    Uh huh.

  10. Hal says:

    Are you really this dense or are you just playing the straight man?

    If you can’t tell the difference between swearing and calling your wife a c*nt, then perhaps you have even more issues than I thought.

    By all means, dredge up cursing and swearing that Hillary did. I really think it’ll help y’all out in your never ending quest and will pave the golden path to the white house.

  11. Bithead says:

    Nice dance step you’ve got there, Hal.

  12. anjin-san says:

    You have to wonder if Bit actually foams at the mouth when discussing the Clinton’s.

    Bit do you really keep track of that stuff? Get a life dude. Seriously.

    God only knows how many billions of taxpayer dollars lost in Iraq to theft/fraud, and he is obsessing with Hillary swearing in a previous century…

  13. Bithead says:

    So, let’s see here. You two a short time ago were complaining loudly about not bringing facts to the table. When I refer back to my hard drive and post such, you still complain?

    Oh, I see. Your REAL complaint is I’m not buying what you’re selling.

    Never mind.

  14. Davebo says:

    When I refer back to my hard drive and post such, you still complain?

    Great, post your hard drive on the internet so we can verify all this, as if it matters.

    If you just want to encourage the opinion that you’re one of the dullest bits on the internet, continue on.

  15. davod says:

    Obama pushes through millions in Federal money to wife’s hospital and she gets a $200,000 raise.

    I think this is worthy of debate.

  16. Are families off limits in presidential politics? They haven’t seemed to be in the past, but seeing as how Senator Obama himself appears to now be off limits, why wouldn’t his family be as well?

  17. Bithead says:

    Typical. Go light on facts, but provide a few breadcrumbs so people can do heir own research, and leftists complain that you’re not proving facts to back your point.

    Provide the facts they demand to back your point, and Democrats claim it doesn’t matter, anyway…. Sour grapes style.

    It would be more amusing, I suppose, if I hadn’t seen it so often before.

  18. anjin-san says:

    Really Bit, what is your point? That Hillary is not a very nice person? Thanks for the news flash, but I figured that out in 1993.

  19. Hal says:

    Really Bit, what is your point? That Hillary is not a very nice person?

    that’s what’s weird. I mean, maybe he’s just got a huge store of ammunition he was going to use when Hillary became the nominee and he has to shoot it off somewhere. But really, the whole “double standard” thing is just completely bizarre. it’s like whitewater, vince foster, file gate, the blue dress and impeachment never happened for him. I mean, who does he think Joe Leiberman – the last honest man – spent the latter half of the 90’s scolding on a daily basis?

    Even more odd, somehow someone who wasn’t even involved in any of that is somehow committing the sin of a double standard by trying to lay down a truce on a subject that could get very ugly for everyone if the 527’s decide to bring the knifes out.

    At this point, I half expect Dr. Bithead to start mumbling darkly about Chappaquiddick or the trilateral commission or something…

    I mean, Bithead, I actually do appreciate the fact that you were able to whip out a 20 point sourced document on Bill and Hillary’s swearing, cursing and use of disparaging remarks wrt each other. Really, I do. It’s impressive. But, neither Hillary and Bill are running for president this year. Further, Obama really isn’t a big Bill or Hillary supporter and AFAIK, wasn’t really a central figure during the 90’s WRT the whole litany of Bill and Hillary issues you seem to be obsessed about.

    So, A+ on the sourcing – love that. But geebus. It’s like doing fantastic homework on a completely different subject than the assignment.

  20. Bithead says:

    Clearly the point you’re intentionally missing here is what you two decide to fire your guns at, and what you don’t.

    We’re supposed to regard statements from Democrats like:

    I guess calling your own wife a C*NT acceptable in today’s republican party

    …as something to be concerned about. We’re supposed to make our judgments by this kind of stuff. But when the same proverbial guns get turned on Democrats, you guys act like it matters not at all.

    Just as you would expect a true believer to do.

  21. Hal says:

    Just as you would expect a true believer to do.

    Dude, who cares? As we’ve said, pile on Hillary and Bill all you want. Sing it from the highest blog mountain. The point is, and it’s something that simply doesn’t seem to penetrate that skull of yours, HILLARY AND BILL AREN’T RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT.


    Understand? Therefore

    But when the same proverbial guns get turned on Democrats, you guys act like it matters not at all.

    Yes, it doesn’t matter. Know why?


    In fact, neither are running for any office *at*all*.

    Consequently, no one gives a sh*t about them, their past, nor what they have said about each other.

    McCain and Obama are running for President, Bithead. We’ll find out who the Veeps are soon, but in all probability it won’t be Hillary on Obama’s side.

    So, who cares? You’re obsessed, we know that. But it’s like screaming about FDR, Carter or whomever. It isn’t relevant to anyone but you and you’re fevered mind.

  22. Bithead says:

    Who is running for president isn’t the point.
    Your reaction in each case, and the comparison of them, is.

    When you can face that point, let me know.

  23. Hal says:

    whaaaaaa? I mean, even for you this is a record new low.

    You’re like an Onion. Every time I think I’ve ripped off the final layer, you keep on coming up with more.


  24. Bithead says:

    Even you aren’t buying your own act anymore.