Lay off my wife! That's Barack Obama's order to his opponents, which they will gleefully ignore. And with good reason. The spouses of this crop of presidential candidates don't fit the mold of Denis Thatcher, who went off each day to his paint and preservatives business while his wife Margaret ran Great Britain. By contrast, Michelle Obama has vigorously and revealingly campaigned for her husband. At a key moment Cindy McCain stepped forward, too. And then there's Bill.
Let's start with him. Hillary Clinton has spoken vaguely about the former president serving her administration as some sort of roaming ambassador. Like you could keep him from roaming. Bill Clinton remains a looming presence in Hillary's campaign. He supposedly was banished to the hinterlands for stirring up racial divisions, but it's the hinterlands that kept Hillary in this race.
More tellingly, when Bill first ran for president in 1992, he told voters that with Hillary they'd be getting two for one. Actually, she first achieved prominence, not as a policy wonk, but as the woman who stood by Bill during the Gennifer Flowers scandal, assuring the nation on 60 Minutes that there would be no more hanky panky. Her reward was the chance to nationalize health care. The ensuing fiasco helped cost Democrats control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Hillary was then banished to the White House hinterlands until she again had to stand by her man during the Paula Jones-Monica Lewinsky scandal. Her renewed influence and victim status put her on track to run for the Senate and ultimately the White House. For all this she is considered a feminist icon.
Barack Obama has not even hinted at a co-presidency, but no one doubts Michelle's clout. Her solo campaigning around the country has galvanized support for her husband, particularly among African Americans, about 90% of whom support Obama. But Michelle's approach is different from his.
She twice said that for the first time in her adult lifetime she was proud of her country, for the hope her husband's campaign inspired. She has said America was "just downright mean." She has urged young people to work not for corporate America but in social services. This last statement is especially telling. Critics ask where social services receive their funding, if not from the revenues produced by business. In the same vein, ABC's George Stephanopoulos - a former political adviser to Bill Clinton - asked Senator Obama during a debate why he wanted to raise capital gains tax rates, since lower rates have generated more tax revenue (a fact rarely noted by the mainstream media). Obama said he would raise those tax rates anyway in the interest of "fairness." Opponents say the Obamas care less about producing income than in redistributing it.
And what about Cindy McCain? She apparently has the biggest income of all - bigger even than the Clintons' $109 million since Bill left office, although it's hard to know, since Cindy McCain has not made her tax returns public. Should she? John McCain's individual returns suggest a far more modest lifestyle. The issue will no doubt be debated. Otherwise, Mrs. McCain seems like the most traditional candidate spouse, gazingly adoringly but silently at John on the stump - except for one key moment. When Michelle Obama spoke of her first-time pride in America, Cindy McCain went before the media to say that she had "always" been proud of her country. Does that make her fair game - especially for those who question whether America has always been worthy?
Hey, unless you go off to your paint business, everybody's fair game. And even Denis Thatcher came in for his share of abuse.